Republican congressional candidate Tom Emmer has released what might be the most unusual ad of the political season for the open seat in Minnesota’s Sixth District. In it, Emmer stands in front of a Tom Emmer for Congress sign and makes a pitch — not for himself, but for a local remodeling company.
“Hi, I’m Tom Emmer, and I’m running for Congress in Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District,” Emmer says in the ad, with his blue campaign banner behind him. “If you’re looking for someone to do remodeling, siding or general construction — residential or commercial — I can tell you without qualification, you need to call the folks at Integrity Exteriors and Remodelers. They’re the best.”
Neither Emmer nor the company, based in Elk River, could be reached for comment.
State Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, speaking for the Emmer campaign, released a statement Monday that said the firm had done “a wonderful job” renovating the Emmer for Congress campaign office in Otsego. “They asked Tom for a testimonial of the work they did, and he was more than happy to support a local business out of Elk River,” FitzSimmons said in the statement. “It was not Tom’s intention for this testimonial to be used in a broadcast capacity or advertisement for the campaign, and we have asked Integrity to discontinue its use.”
Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, which focuses on campaign finance and government ethics, said federal campaign rules are hands-off about free content on YouTube, but a commercial that runs as a paid advertisement on television would be a clear violation of federal election law.
“If this thing ran on TV, this is an illegal, corporate in-kind contribution to a candidate for federal office, in the form of a coordinated ad,” Ryan said.
Even if the ad was pulled quickly, and even if Emmer didn’t intend for it to air as a commercial, Ryan said the candidate and the company could face severe penalties from the Federal Election Commission. He said that in 2004 a U.S. Senate candidate in Illinois appeared in an ad for his own dairy business — without mentioning his candidacy — and was slapped with a $21,000 FEC fine.
“Creating an ad like this is creating something of value for a candidate,” Ryan said. “The content of this ad contains the most explicit, express advocacy that can exist. It is a textbook example. It says, ‘Emmer for Congress’ in bold letters behind him.”
A national political expert, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I have literally watched thousands and thousands of ads. I’ve never seen a combination of political ad and product promo.”
Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier, a veteran observer of campaigns, was astonished. “This is so weird. This is so extraterrestrial,” he said. “You would think the Sixth District was returning to Earth now that Michele Bachmann is retiring. But no, we’re boldly going where no one has gone before.”
DFL state chairman Ken Martin said the ad raises serious legal questions. He said it could have violated a prohibition against direct corporate contributions to campaigns and might have run afoul of laws governing the nature of elections communications.
“I think this will come back to haunt him,” Martin said.
The FEC struggled two years ago with ads aired by Oklahoma’s Markwayne Mullin, a GOP candidate for Congress who owned a successful plumbing company and appeared in the company’s advertisements. Mullin won the race and is now in Congress.
The FEC deadlocked on one case involving whether such ads should be considered political expenditures. It also dismissed a complaint that Mullin’s appearances represented an unreported campaign gift.
An Emmer rival for the GOP nomination in the Sixth District, former state Rep. Phil Krinkie, is the owner of a heating and cooling firm and has appeared in its advertising. But he said he has kept his pitches for political issues and furnace repair separate.
“It did seem rather strange to me that somebody who’s running for office would go out and advertise that at same time as pitching a product or a service,” Krinkie said, adding, “That’s Mr. Emmer’s decision.”