We know that given the fundraising disparities, Senate candidate Donna Edwards is going to need help - a lot of it - coming up with the money for television ads. At last count, her opponent Chris Van Hollen has over $4 million in the bank as compared to Edwards’ $368,ooo. That’s not a gap, it’s an abyss.
Enter third party groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America. As progressives, we are very critical of such groups, because tens if not hundreds of millions in dark corporate money has flowed to right wing groups since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
But even though they don’t have the kind of heft of the dark money conservative groups, there are such groups on the left. I’m a pragmatist - so long as the law allows it, it’s hard to win a national or sometimes even statewide general election if we let the other side run amok with unrestricted third party money while we act all pure and virtuous.
But what to do when third party groups get active in a primary campaign, as they have for Donna Edwards in the Senate race, and for other candidates in House races? Can a candidate honestly take third party support and still claim to be a campaign finance reform champion? Is it still a question of practicality and pragmatism, or is it different? And what if we like the groups doing the spending - like EMILY’s List? Is there a good bright line rule for what’s OK on the left and what isn’t?
I don’t claim to know the definitive answer to these questions, but it’s one that Edwards (PCCC, DFA, and EMILY’s List) Jamie Raskin (PCCC, DFA, Mayday) and Kathleen Matthews (EMILY’s List) in CD8 are going to have to answer.
There are many lines that are out there. You probably know that there are rules against “coordination” between campaigns and third party groups, rules that are honored far more often in the breach. Last week, Mayday came in to CD8 and just so happened to speak out about precisely what the Raskin campaign was talking about at the same time - out of state campaign contributions. Problem? Politically, you decide - legally, there’s probably no case because in most cases campaigns aren’t dumb enough to leave a trail. But the sight of a super PAC supporting Jamie Raskin surely had to ring a little wrong to some folks, and that’s why I argued that it wasn’t helpful at all to Raskin for Mayday to do what it did. They’ve shut up now, and I hope for Raskin’s sake that they don’t come back.
That’s a blurry line, though. A brighter line issue is a practice that became widespread in 2014. The problem is that third party groups want to make TV ads supporting candidates, but one of the things they lack is what’s known as “B roll video,” the stock footage of a candidate walking down the street, shaking hands with what appear to be a random assortment of ethnically mixed voters, looking decisive, etc. B roll has no sound other than terrible ersatz pop music, but it looks good and every ad has it.
How to get such video from the candidate to the third party group? Candidates can’t just give third party groups B roll video, that would be coordination. So here’s the solution - shoot a big pile of B roll and dump it on the Internet, with no sound but the atrocious pop music. Since it’s public, anyone - including those third party groups eager to spend piles of cash on TV ads - can scoop up the video and use it as they see fit. The epitome of the B roll gimmick in 2014 was Mitch McConnell, so much so that the practice became known as “McConnelling.”
Jon Stewart made the notion famous by suggesting that viewers set the McConnell B roll video to alternative audio. The response was overwhelming. And funny. And freaky. Here’s just one of the thousands of #McConnelling videos out there. I have a soft spot for Pokemon videos - both my kids were huge fans.
Campaign finance reform groups have screamed bloody murder about this practice, but it goes on because the FEC is hopelessly deadlocked and ineffectual at enforcement on its best day. But as funny as the McConnell video is, this is pushing the boundaries of the “coordination” rules to the breaking point.
So now that we know what “B roll video” and “McConnelling” are, let’s look at two new YouTube videos today from Donna Edwards.
There’s a third one coming supposedly today.
No audio of the candidate? Check.
Bad music? Oh yeah.
Walking with groups of seemingly random but somehow diverse voters? Hell yes.
Looking decisive and interested and engaged? Yup yup and yup.
Can a third party group grab this video and use it in its TV spots? Of course.
Is there some other purpose to this kind of ad other than McConnelling? Not that I can see.
Is it illegal coordination? Absent proof, no.
Does it look bad politically? What do you think?
Let’s look for the third party ads and see if any of the footage from these videos end up in those ads. That’ll tell us more. In the meantime, I leave you with this, which once observed cannot be unheard or unseen. You’re welcome.