WASHINGTON -- Television watchers may be surprised to learn that a large share of the sharp-edged campaign commercials clogging the airwaves right now are not technically political ads.
The vast majority fall under the broad category that the Federal Election Commission deems “issue ads” – spots that stop short of calling for a candidate’s election or defeat. They are the form of choice for conservative advocacy groups such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, which together have already declared ad buys amounting to $115 million this cycle, according to a tally by the Sunlight Foundation.
That’s because as nonprofit “social welfare” organizations, these groups cannot make political activity their primary purpose – otherwise they risk having their tax status revoked and being forced to disclose their donors, as political organizations like “super PACs” must.
Now one campaign finance reform group believes it has found a way to challenge the notion that some of this season’s most pointed ads are not political in their intent.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint Tuesday with the FEC against Crossroads GPS over spots it has run this summer against Democratic Senate candidates Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
The commercials do not qualify as issue ads, CREW argued, because they urge voters to tell the three candidates to support policies they cannot influence because they are not currently in office.
According to FEC regulations, issue ads – also called “electioneering communications” when they run within a specific time period before an election – are commercials that refer to a clearly identified candidate for federal office.
But Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said the language used in the Crossroads commercials show they have a political purpose.
“They are really fake issue ads,” Sloan said. “These people have actually no role in public policy right now.”
One Crossroads GPS ad against Heitkamp declares, “Tell Heidi: Obamacare is wrong for North Dakota.” The commercial does not include contact information for Heitkamp, CREW noted, as many issue ads do.
A spokesman for Crossroads GPS said the complaint lacked merit.
“This is a baseless complaint from a group run by partisans, which serves partisan causes under the dubious guise of charity,” spokesman Jonathan Collegio said.