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NY19, Super PACs and One Very Confused Reporter 

A super PAC supporting NY19 candidate Pat Ryan has been accused of "negative" campaigning. When subjected to greater scrutiny, however, these claims fail to hold up.

click to enlarge NY19 candidate Pat Ryan, a West Point graduate, veteran and businessman, has been called on to denounce spending by a super PAC that supports veterans. - PAT RYAN FOR CONGRESS
  • Pat Ryan for Congress
  • NY19 candidate Pat Ryan, a West Point graduate, veteran and businessman, has been called on to denounce spending by a super PAC that supports veterans.

The Release

While the NY19 Democratic primary hasn’t yet seen the kind of contention and intrigue that often plagues modern politics, that doesn’t mean this race won’t have it’s fair share of clashes. One of these came on May 30 when the campaign of Antonio Delgado, a lawyer from Rhinebeck, sent out a press release, “Super PAC, With Honor Fund, Inc., Spends Money to Oppose Antonio Delgado in Democratic Primary.”

The release noted that the fund, “a super PAC that supports Pat Ryan,” a veteran and businessman from Kingston, spent money to oppose Delgado “on the same day that both the Ryan and Delgado campaigns joined a district-wide pledge to stand against negative campaigning from outside groups.

It also quoted KT Tobin, Deputy Mayor of the Village of New Paltz, who said, “Six Democratic campaigns came together yesterday to stand against these kinds of outside groups’ attempts to divide us. We call on Pat Ryan to denounce this and future negative spending by With Honor Fund or any group, and reaffirm his commitment to running a positive campaign.” Tobin has yet to endorse any candidate.

They also made sure to point out that “With Honor Fund is a ‘cross-partisan’ Super PAC that has spent more than $1 million to support Republican House candidates in 2018.”

The purpose of this release was not to claim that the Ryan campaign was going negative per se–FEC rules dictate that political campaigns cannot coordinate with PACs–but likely to tie Ryan’s campaign to the allegedly negative spending of an outside group and put him in a paradigm whereby he had to denounce their support.

There’s just one problem with all this, besides the fact that the Ryan campaign cannot coordinate with For Honor Fund; it wasn’t really negative spending.

Digging Deeper

If I were a writer for PolitiFact, I would rate the Delgado campaign’s allegations, and the context in which they are framed, as “half true.” Let’s start with what is true. With Honor Fund is a cross-partisan Super PAC dedicated to electing veterans to public office. Their mission, according to their website, is “to elect principled next-generation veterans to office who will work in a cross-partisan way to create a more effective and less polarized government.” According to the FEC website, they have spent money to "support" Ryan and "oppose" Delgado. Where the claims become murkier is where they tack the spending as explicitly negative. I wanted to investigate further.

First I reached out to the Ryan campaign.

“We cannot legally coordinate with an outside Super PAC,” Pat Ryan spokesperson Tim Wagner reminded me, and therefore, “we cannot control what they do.” This was most of what they could offer, and I was skeptical to say the least. As yet unconvinced, I sought information from the Super PAC itself.

“With Honor is a Super PAC working to elect veterans,” said Ellen Zeng, a spokesperson for With Honor Fund, “Pat Ryan is the only veteran in this race, so if we were to get involved in this race, we would support Pat Ryan.”

She continued, “we are in full compliance with FEC rules in our disclosures, and their definitions [of ‘support’ and ‘oppose’] are different from how I think you or I would understand them.” She also reiterated, “If we [were] to get involved with this race, we would support Pat Ryan,” because, besides being the only veteran in the race, they say, he is “the strongest general election candidate.” Essentially, For Honor had to mark their spending as supporting or opposing one candidate or the other.

The words “get involved” are key there, because they clue us in on what the spending is actually for. “Polling,” says With Honor’s FEC filing. That, in the mind of With Honor, does not even count as “getting involved,” much less negatively campaigning. The purpose of these types of internal polls are typically to gauge whether or not a candidate should be given financial support. Zeng noted that With Honor does not even release their polls publicly.

She later confirmed, “We are not going negative.”

Mere speculation

According to FEC rules, an independent expenditure by a PAC “may support (or oppose) candidate” and is defined as a communication that “expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate.” If information is offered about a given candidate in any PAC expenditures, whether it be a TV ad, a poll or a mailer, a certain portion of the spending must be denoted as either supporting or opposing that candidate.

Given these paradigms, With Honor was likely offering information about both candidates and seeing how that information impacts trends–a typical method of measuring races. Because With Honor supports Ryan, they would naturally mark their spending in relation to Delgado as opposing him.

But With Honor Fund probably didn't even have to mark the spending as "opposing" Delgado, as evidenced by their previous spending.

According to FEC filings on April 25, With Honor ostensibly spent money in “support” of nearly every candidate in the in the race. They reported spending $3,444 to support every candidate except Beals, who they apparently did not offer additional information about and therefore did not spend on, and Ryan, for whom they spent $13,777. This too was for “polling,” according to the FEC website.

Even though With Honor supports Pat Ryan, they marked their spending in that particular poll as in support of six of the candidates. This underscores the arbitrary nature of the FEC’s support/oppose binary with this particular type of spending.

All things considered, claims of this spending being “negative” are off the mark. While technically the spending was in opposition to Delgado, that’s all it really was, a technicality. Granted, the Delgado campaign likely did not do this degree of digging–few campaigns would–and therefore did not know about the nuances of this spending. That said, it should not be considered negative campaigning and there is no reason for Ryan to denounce it other than for optics.

Update: The Other Hudson Valley, an outlet closely following the race, has done reporting on this issue which includes interviewing poll respondents and pollsters, and which casts the poll in a different light. Their sources suggest that it’s a “push poll,” which purposefully uses loaded words in order to plant certain ideas about Delgado and Ryan in voters’ minds. While the purpose of this may be more for analytical than propagandistic, if true it would appear to throw some contradiction on my previously perceived innocuousness of With Honor’s spending. Whether it's a violation of the negative campaigning pledge if Ryan does not denounce this outside spending has been and remains in the eye of the beholder.

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