The National Rifle Association is continuing to funnel much of its spending on the 2018 midterm elections through an apparent shell company that, according to one campaign watchdog, is part of a scheme to skirt election laws.
The gun group broke its own record in every election between 2010 and 2016. This year, it's suddenly thrifty.
Records filed with the Federal Election Commission on Friday show that the NRA spent more than $830,000 in support of Missouri GOP Senate candidate Josh Hawley, who is locked in a virtual tie with Claire McCaskill, the state’s Democratic incumbent. The gun group hired a firm called Starboard Strategic Inc. to place the ads.
Hawley’s campaign, meanwhile, has paid OnMessage Inc., a conservative political consulting firm, more than $1.2 million for its services. Previous reporting by The Trace has shown that Starboard — whose only client is the NRA — appears to be little more than an OnMessage alter ego.
The Campaign Legal Center, an election watchdog, has filed two complaints with the FEC based on The Trace’s ongoing investigation. The complaints allege that the NRA uses Starboard to evade election laws meant to bar coordination between campaigns and outside groups.
From our previous reporting:
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 first] 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.
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 released a copy of its firewall policy. The firm did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the NRA or Hawley’s campaign.
The Missouri Senate race is not the first of the cycle that raises questions about NRA coordination. In early September, The Trace reported that the NRA paid Starboard nearly $400,000 for costs relating to an ad that attacked Senator Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Matt Rosendale. As with Hawley, Rosendale last tapped OnMessage for work over the summer. The Trace’s story spurred the Legal Center to file the second complaint.