Hardball politics and campaign trickery are as American as apple pie, but even in that rough and tumble world, some rules apply. A new Republican fundraising tactic reminiscent of “spoofing” telemarketing scams has some asking where the line is these days between clever campaigning and fraud.
At first glance, AnnKirkpatrick.com looks like any normal campaign website. A big picture of the smiling Arizona Democrat stands next to a “Kirkpatrick For Congress” banner above a fat “DONATE” button, all in the same colors as those used by the real website for Kirkpatrick, who’s fighting to keep her House seat. Read closer and the text of the site reveals lines like “Kirkpatrick is a huge embarrassment to Arizona,” but anyone who didn’t bother to read the site closely (or who couldn’t due to bad eyesight) before trying to make a donation to Kirkpatrick’s campaign would find that they’d just contributed to the coffers of the National Republican Congressional Committee—the House GOP’s campaign arm backing Kirkpatrick’s opponent.
Annkirkpatrick.com is one of a series of websites (TIME has found 16, so far) the NRCC has set up that are clearly designed to trick the viewer—at least at first—into thinking they’re on a legitimate campaign website. The tactic smacks of “spoofing” scams, whereby spammers masquerade under fake phone numbers or email addresses to win trust (it’s how you might have once received an email that looked addressed from a friend but turned out to be a plaintive plea from wealthy Nigerian prince). But the line between clever and criminal is an ambiguous one in American politics, and anyone claiming to be shocked by less-than-truthful campaign materials hasn’t been around much.
No one has formally accused the NRCC of wrongdoing publicly, and it’s not at all clear the group has crossed a legal line. The NRCC stands by the tactic and mocks Democrats for failing to grab up Internet real estate important to the party’s candidates. “Democrats are behind the game in digital,” NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said. “They should be buying the URLs for their candidates. I think that’s a pretty basic campaign tactic.”
Bozek said the NRCC has been promoting such sites for the past year and intends to roll out more of them as the midterm elections heat up, while also buying up domain names for their own candidates by the hundreds as a defensive maneuver.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the NRCC’s counterpart, feels differently. “It’s not the DCCC’s practice to make websites that that could be confused with the opponent’s site,” spokeswoman Emily Bittner said.