Controversy is brewing over a series of websites put up by the National Republican Congressional Committee that look a lot like Democratic campaign websites and ask for contributions — which then go the NRCC.
Attack websites are nothing new. They typically feature a grainy, unflattering photo of the targeted candidate along with headlines and media stories showing what an awful person he or she is.
The NRCC ads are different in that they feature flattering or neutral photos of the Democrat targeted; at a glance, they look like the candidate’s own website.
Set your browser to Parrish4Congress.com, for example, and you hit a site with a big headline “Mike Parrish Congress.” Below that, there is a prominent “donate” button. Parrish is the Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 6th District, a seat currently held by Republican Jim Gerlach.
If you were to get out your credit card and hit that button, Parrish said, he wouldn’t get your contribution.
“People will go online thinking they’re donating to me, and they’re actually donating to the national Republican campaign,” Parrish said in a phone interview.
Bill Hughes Jr., a Democrat running against New Jersey U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, is furious about a site bearing his name and likeness.
“The NRCC is free to say things about my (law) practice,” Hughes said. “They cannot use my name to raise money, and to profit off of it. There is a federal law that explicitly prohibits them from doing that.”
Jim Schroeder, chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic party has filed a formal complaint about the ads with Federal Election Commission. You can read the complaint here.
The NRCC is proud of the fact that it quickly bought URLs Democratic candidates might want, then put up attack websites and promoted them with Google ads.
Are the sites deceptive?
At first glance, absolutely. But if you spend 20 seconds reading them, you quickly wise up.
NRCC spokesman Ian Prior told me it’s ludicrous to think Republicans are trying to trick Democrats into donating to the GOP.
“This is not read(ing) the fine print. This is pretty bold print,” Prior said. “I mean, the entire substance of these websites are information about the Democrat that any reasonable person reading would understand, `Hey, this is not their website. This is a site put up by the National Republican Congressional Committee,’ as is stated.”
Prior noted that Democrats put up a site attacking a Florida Republican site using his name, Jolly for Congress.
“So they’re doing the same thing,” Prior said. “They’re just trying to make something out of nothing because they didn’t think of it first.”
That Democratic site is clearly an attack site and couldn’t be mistaken for a pitch for Republican contributions.
Democrats told me that Google had taken down one of the Republican sites mimicking a Florida Democrat as a “phishing” site, designed to trick people. But it turns out the site was automatically flagged because some people filled out an online form complaining about it.
After I contacted Google, spokeswoman Samantha Smith wrote me that “after a review of the site, we found there to be no problem and removed the warning.” You can see that site here.
Prior says if any Democrats somehow accidentally donate to the NRCC through one of the sites thinking they were helping a Democrat, they can get their money back.