‘Big money bat signal’: Galloway campaign accused of sidestepping ban on coordination

    BRIEF

    Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway speaks at a rally in St. Louis on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo by Wiley Pice / St. Louis American).

    In late September, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Nicole Galloway’s campaign laid out a stinging critique of Gov. Mike Parson’s health care record on a section of its website titled “Important Election Update.” 

    Parson “cut 100,000 kids from their health care,” the site declared, “and he opposes Medicaid expansion that would give 250,000 working people health care and save our rural hospitals when they need them most.” 

    A week later, a political action committee called Stronger Missouri, funded mostly by the Democratic Governors Association and set up to boost Galloway’s campaign, launched a TV ad mirroring the message

    “When nearly 100,000 Missouri children were removed from their health care program Parson failed our children,” the ad said. “And when Parson opposed a measure that we voted for to help 250,000 Missourians afford health care and save our rural hospitals he failed all of us.”

    The same pattern played out in mid October, with Galloway’s campaign posting another “Important Election Update” and Stronger Missouri launching an ad echoing it. 

    In Missouri, candidates are governed by contribution limits, but independent PACs are not. They can coordinate on fundraising activities, but that coordination must end when it comes time to spend the money — and that extends to messaging, strategy and advertising. 

    That dynamic has often led campaigns, at both the state and federal level, to get creative when trying to get around the prohibitions, such as candidates posting b-roll of themselves on YouTube so supportive PACs can use it in TV ads.  

    Galloway’s campaign appears to have gone a step further, posting what amounts to instructions that Stronger Missouri could pick up for TV ads in the campaign’s homestretch. 

    “This looks like another example of a campaign sending up the big money bat signal, and a super PAC promptly responding,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program. He later added: “A campaign posting a document like this on its website is fairly common practice, but it usually represents an invitation for super PACs to spend in the race.”

    Parson’s allies were quick to criticize, with Michael Berg, spokesman for the pro-Parson Uniting Missouri PAC, calling the set up a “legally dubious scheme to violate the spirit of campaign finance laws.”

    Kevin Donahoe, Galloway’s campaign spokesman, said the campaign “complies with all applicable law. Period. We have never coordinated an expenditure with any independent group.”

    He called it “absurd” for Republicans to accuse Galloway of illegal coordination, noting that both Parson’s campaign and Uniting Missouri have used footage from the same video shoot in advertising. Parson also regularly travels on private planes paid for by Uniting Missouri. 

    Screenshot of disclaimer at the end of of an ad pushed on Facebook by Uniting Missouri.

    A recent Facebook ad paid for by Uniting Missouri shares one of Parson’s TV spots. The ad in question includes two disclaimers at the end — One for Uniting Missouri and one for Parson’s campaign.

    Berg said Galloway’s campaign is simply trying to muddy the water. 

    The back and forth on coordination is familiar in Missouri. 

    Former Sen. Claire McCaskill faced similar criticism in 2018, when her campaign posted a page on its website titled “Missourians Need to Know.” The site’s criticism of her GOP opponent, Republican Josh Hawley, became a TV ad four days later paid for by a PAC supporting Democratic candidates. 

    In August, after a complaint was filed by Democrats alleging illegal coordination, Uniting Missouri was fined $2,000 by the state’s ethics commission for failing to report payments for the governor’s private plane travel.