First, the good news: After years of being really, really, really bad at Internet, the Republicans may have finally figured out how to use the web smartly. The bad news: They did it, predictably, for evil and probably broke federal laws against coordination between campaigns and outside money groups.
Chris Moody, lately of CNN, broke the story this morning about how several of this year's congressional candidates' campaigns, coordinated by the national GOP, used fake Twitter accounts "hidden in plain sight" to share expensive internal polling numbers with soft-money allies like Karl Rove's super PAC, giving the money groups the info they needed to release targeted advertising:
The practice is the latest effort in the quest by political operatives to exploit the murky world of campaign finance laws at a time when limits on spending in politics are eroding and regulators are being defanged.
The law says that outside groups, such as super PACs and non-profits, can spend freely on political causes as long as they don't coordinate their plans with campaigns. Sharing costly internal polls in private, for instance, could signal to the campaign committees where to focus precious time and resources.
The groups behind the operation had a sense of humor about what they were doing. One Twitter account was named after Bruno Gianelli, a fictional character in The West Wing who pressed his colleagues to use ethically questionable "soft money" to fund campaigns.
A typical tweet read: "CA-40/43-44/49-44/44-50/36-44/49-10/16/14-52—>49/476-10s." The source said posts like that — which would look like gibberish to most people — represented polling data for various House races.
Moody's sources say the groups involved included Rove's American Crossroads GPS super PAC, as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee, the RNC electioneering arm responsible for keeping Republicans' congressional majority safe.
Is this level of coordination illegal? It certainly seems to violate the spirit of the campaign finance laws. No one seems to know for sure, because no one's been caught pulling this sort of stupidity before.
But the Republican political operatives who ran the Twitter accounts sure must have thought they were living dangerously: According to Moody, the accounts were suddenly deleted from Twitter on November 3, "minutes after CNN contacted the NRCC with questions."