Nov 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Ohio GOP candidates push super PAC bounds

Illustration of an elephant's feet climbing stacks of pennies

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Republican candidates in one of the nation's most hotly contested Senate races are pushing the bounds of high-dollar politicking, an Axios examination shows.

Why it matters: Anti-corruption rules bar candidates from coordinating with supportive super PACs. In Ohio's GOP Senate primary, huge amounts of money are pouring in, and operatives are finding creative ways to leverage it without breaking federal law.

What's happening: The latest ostensibly independent group to enter the fray, a super PAC called Ohio Leads, is backing former state GOP chair Jane Timken.

  • It was officially formed in September, and this week reported spending more than $220,000 on pro-Timken digital ads.
  • In advertising disclosures on Facebook, the group lists a phone number associated with a Republican operative who advises the Ricketts family, which includes some of the GOP's top donors.
  • Late last month — after Ohio Leads was formed but before it began running ads — the Timken campaign held a fundraiser at the Ricketts residence, according to an invitation obtained by Axios.
  • Two sources familiar with the event told Axios it was organized by Sylvie Légère, the wife of then-Republican National Committee finance chair Todd Ricketts, who did not attend the event to avoid the appearance of favoritism in his RNC position.

The intrigue: Ohio Leads' ads use footage from a five-minute b-roll clip uploaded to the Timken campaign's YouTube page late last month.

  • Source code indicates the Republican consulting firm Majority Strategies helped build websites for both Ohio Leads and the Timken campaign.
  • The campaign has paid Majority Strategies more than $70,000 this year for literature production, graphic design and digital ads, according to Federal Election Commission records.

How it works: The b-roll maneuver is a common way for campaigns to boost supportive independent spenders without violating laws barring campaign-super PAC coordination.

  • Campaigns frequently upload those sorts of clips to locations where allied super PACs can find and download them to use in their own ads.
  • It's also legal for vendors to work with both a campaign and a group it's legally barred from working with, as long as they establish internal firewalls between that work.

What they're saying: "Of course, Jane’s campaign has no coordination with any outside effort and follows the letter and intent of the law to the letter," Timken spokesperson Mandi Merritt told Axios in an emailed statement.

  • “We are incredibly excited Jane has outside support from donors who recognize she is the only true America First candidate with the grassroots strength and record of conviction to stop Joe Biden and the Radical Left," Merritt wrote.

Timken is not the only candidate in the race benefiting from that sort of super PAC vendor overlap.

  • Primary rival Josh Mandel is working with prominent GOP consultancy Axiom Strategies.
  • That firm also is helping to air ads from a pro-Mandel super PAC, the USA Freedom Fund.
  • The firm previously told Axios it established firewalls to ensure it does not run afoul of coordination rules.

The big picture: Timken and Mandel are both competing against a candidate, "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance, whose super PAC is backed by $10 million from billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel.

  • The race is expected to be one of the most expensive in the country, during a midterm cycle that will likely break election spending records.
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