The National Rifle Association made its first major foray into the 2018 election cycle last week, unleashing ads on behalf of Republican challengers to Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. And in both cases, the gun group continued to pay a mysterious vendor that, according to one election watchdog, appears to be a shell company set up to circumvent election laws limiting how much the NRA can spend on candidates.
That firm, according to the NRA’s latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, is Starboard Strategic Inc. As The Trace and Politico Magazine reported in July, Starboard Strategic, which is the NRA’s top election contractor — to the tune of more than $60 million from the gun group since 2014 — appears to be little more than the alter ego of an established firm called OnMessage, Inc. The two entities share the same office addresses and partners, one of whom registered Starboard’s opaque, skeletal website (after our story was published, the domain registration was privatized).
OnMessage is a prominent consulting firm that works directly with GOP campaigns. According to an FEC complaint that the Campaign Legal Center filed shortly after our investigation, Starboard Strategic and OnMessage are “functionally indistinguishable.” The NRA is free to independently spend as much as it wants on political candidates, so long as the group isn’t coordinating its messaging and strategy with the candidates’ campaigns. Any spending that is coordinated, however, is subject to caps and disclosure requirements. By paying Starboard for ads in support of candidates while OnMessage was working directly with the same candidates’ official campaigns, the complaint says, the NRA “made excessive and unreported contributions…in violation of…reporting requirements and contribution limits.”
In 2014, the NRA paid Starboard millions of dollars for ads in support of three Republican Senate candidates: Tom Cotton in Arkansas; Cory Gardner in Colorado, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Simultaneously, those campaigns contracted with OnMessage. All three candidates defeated Democratic incumbents. In 2016, a similar arrangement played out again in Wisconsin: Republican Ron Johnson, who beat back a challenge from Russ Feingold, employed OnMessage. Later in the campaign cycle, the NRA placed anti-Feingold ads through Starboard.
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Federal law allows outside groups and campaigns to use common vendors. But the firm working for either client must ensure that employees do not share election-related information. Usually, a firm seeks to prevent coordination by requiring its staffers to read and sign a strict firewall policy, which functions both as an agreement to comply with the law and an acknowledgement that there are penalties for failing to do so. Despite repeated requests, OnMessage has never produced a copy or provided any details of its policy.
The ad the NRA ran against Tester raises fresh questions about potentially illegal coordination. The gun group paid Starboard almost $400,000 for costs relating to the spot. Meanwhile, the campaign of Tester’s opponent, Matt Rosendale, has already paid OnMessage more than $400,000 this cycle.
“It appears the NRA is continuing its practice of evading the FEC’s coordination rules by contracting with what seems to be a shell company,” Brendan Fischer, the director of the Legal Center and one of the complaint’s authors, said. “If the NRA is evading coordination rules, then there’s a serious risk of corruption. If the FEC doesn’t take action, then the integrity of our elections will be undermined.”
(The FEC currently has two vacant seats, and, by law, the remaining four commissioners must vote unanimously on any official action; aggressive enforcement actions are rare.)
Representatives for the Tester and Rosendale campaigns did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the NRA or OnMessage. Starboard has no public phone number, and did not immediately respond to an email.