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Inslee ad broke rules by mentioning Trump, GOP claims

Washington Republicans accuse Jay Inslee’s re-election campaign of breaking federal campaign law in the way a new Inslee commercial mentions Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. (Jay Inslee campaign)
Washington Republicans accuse Jay Inslee’s re-election campaign of breaking federal campaign law in the way a new Inslee commercial mentions Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. (Jay Inslee campaign)

Washington Republicans are calling foul over a recent commercial in the governor’s race, claiming Jay Inslee’s campaign is violating federal election law by showing a photo of Donald Trump and saying he and GOP hopeful Bill Bryant are “wrong” for the state.

State GOP Chairman Susan Hutchison said the party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over a law that restricts the way state candidates can mention federal candidates in paid ads. Inslee should know the law, she said, because he voted for it in 2002 as a member of Congress.

Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the Inslee campaign, insists the pre-primary ad was legal, and the GOP complaint could backfire. Bryant for months has studiously avoided saying whether he supports Trump, and the complaint keeps that before the public, he said.

Federal elections law experts said the law and its application are not cut and dried.

The commercial, which ran the weekend before the Aug. 2 election, was the Inslee campaign’s response to a Bryant commercial that hammered the governor for problems in the state over the last four years. The Inslee ad defended his record and mentions his endorsement by law enforcement groups, adding, “And who’s on Republican Bill Bryant’s team? We all know who Bill Bryant’s supporting for president.” It closes with photos of Bryant and Trump and text that they are “wrong for Washington” as the narrator says the campaign paid for the ad.

The last eight seconds of the commercial are the basis of the state GOP’s complaint. Federal law doesn’t allow state candidates to “promote, attack, support or oppose” – often shortened to PASO – a federal candidate in an ad if they get their money from sources who aren’t allowed to give to a federal campaign. Unions and corporations can contribute directly to the governor’s race, but not to the presidential race.

The prime sponsor of the 2002 law, former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said it was designed to keep groups from “laundering” money that doesn’t qualify for federal candidates through state organizations.

Brendan Fischer, assistant counsel at The Campaign Legal Center, said the ad’s statement that Trump is “wrong for Washington” could qualify as an attack. “But that’s a separate question from whether the FEC would do anything about it,” he added.

Determining what qualifies as PASO falls to the elections commission. Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics said the most similar case the commission has decided involved a 2008 complaint against a Republican Texas legislative candidate who said he and GOP presidential candidate John McCain had “Real experience. Real Solutions.” The candidate’s ads also said Barack Obama’s policies were “bad for America” and his opponent’s “blind support of these policies are bad for Texas.”

On a 3-2 vote, the commission dismissed the complaint, saying the ads didn’t expressly advocate for the election or defeat of the presidential candidates. A spokesman for the FEC said this week that in general, an ad by a state candidate would have to say vote for or vote against a presidential candidate, and that would trigger a rule to set up an independent expenditure campaign, which would have to file regular reports.

The commission could rule differently on the Inslee ad, but it’s unlikely to do so before the general election. FEC complaints can take a year or more to be investigated and generate recommendations by counsel before a decision.

Although the Inslee ad claims the two Republican candidates are aligned, Bryant has refused to say whether he is supporting Trump’s candidacy or to take issue with any of the controversial statements the GOP standard-bearer has made. When asked recently about Trump’s criticism of the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq, Bryant refused to comment.

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