COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Campaign Legal Center and End Citizens United are suing J.D. Vance's campaign committee and the super PAC Protecting Ohio Values for alleged illegal in-kind contributions during this year’s U.S. Senate primary election. The lawsuit, filed earlier this week, was first reported by The Daily Beast. It points to a covert website, uncovered by Politico last month, where the super PAC posted numerous campaign research, polling and strategy documents.
Protecting Ohio Values compiled a trove of information that would be useful if you happened to be running a campaign to get J.D. Vance elected to the U.S. Senate in Ohio. Which is perfectly legal — super PACs are allowed to collect unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations, and then spend that money to directly support or attack whichever candidates they choose. They just can't contribute to or coordinate with a candidate's committee.
And that's exactly what the PAC and the Vance campaign did, the federal complaint alleges.
"Protect Ohio Values paid for a variety of campaign materials, including polling data, demographic voter targeting models, strategic insights based on this data, ideas and scripts for campaign communications, and raw footage of Vance — all of which it published on an obscure website that was not widely publicized, intending for the Vance Committee to obtain and make use of the materials," the complaint reads.
They argue the Vance campaign making use of that information amounts to accepting an illegal in-kind contribution.
The plaintiffs hold up one of Vance's campaign ads to bolster their claim that the candidate committee coordinated with the super PAC. The ad in question made waves when it was released. Vance stares straight into the camera and asks the viewer, "Are you racist?" before claiming U.S. border policy is to blame for the prevalence of drugs like fentanyl and then describing how the opioid crisis affected him personally.
The subject matter, delivery, roll out and even scripting echo a post titled "The Next Step" posted to the medium page about two months prior.
"Just as Protect Ohio Values had recommended," the complaint stated, "the Vance Committee ad featured Vance speaking directly into the camera, with several key lines that are simply reconfigurations of (or alternatives for) the words used in the Protect Ohio Values script."
The plaintiffs include a chart comparing the proposed script and the one Vance eventually narrated in the ad. "This is personal to me," they said, became "This issue is personal." The line "No kid should have to grow up without a mother," became "No child should grow up and orphan," they allege.
These kind of detailed strategy suggestions had significant value, the plaintiff organizations argue. Separate and apart from its spending on ads, Protecting Ohio Values "spent more than $620,000 on 'data management,' $750,000 for polling, and $600,000 on various 'consulting' fees, including strategic, communications, and digital consulting."
The complaint also attempts to rebut a potential defense from the super-PAC: How can this be a contribution when we simply made it publicly available?
The plaintiffs note that although the website was technically publicly available, it couldn't easily be found through search engines — even if one knew what they were looking for. They add, again pointing to the Politico story, that once the super PAC's leaders found a different campaign using data they’d posted to the site, they treated it as a data leak.
The complaint emphasizes that campaign finance law prohibits candidate committees from accepting "anything of value" without reporting it, and that making use of strategy and said research from a friendly super PAC ought to qualify.
"Since the Citizens United decision, candidates and super PACs have pushed the boundaries of the law, but what J.D. Vance and Protect Ohio Values PAC did in this scheme is extraordinarily egregious," End Citizens United President Tiffany Muller said in an emailed statement.
Saurav Ghosh heads federal campaign finance reform efforts at the Campaign Legal Center, and he's a former enforcement attorney with the Federal Elections Commission. He argues the agency needs to investigate the Vance campaign and the super PAC.
"When candidates and campaigns flout federal campaign finance laws, they are fostering a system that elevates the voices of the rich and drowns out the voices of everyday Americans —increasing the risk of corruption," Ghosh said. "The FEC, which is responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws, should protect American voters against inequity and corruption in our elections."
Vance's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.