PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Republican Party leaders have warned Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nellie Gorbea they will file a formal complaint against her if outside groups start spending money in accordance with a controversial message on her website.
Target 12 first reported last week that Gorbea has posted a so-called “red box” on her campaign website, alerting outside groups that “voters need to see on broadcast, cable, and OTT that Nellie Gorbea has been an advocate for abortion rights her entire life.” (OTT stands for “over-the-top,” an industry term for streaming services.)
Gorbea’s campaign has defended the red box as “standard campaign practice.” But the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, calls red-boxing “illegal” since campaigns are barred from coordinating with outside groups, and The New York Times has said the practice “makes a mockery of campaign finance laws.”
In an unsigned statement on Tuesday, the state GOP said, “Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea likes to claim she is a champion of fair elections, but apparently, that does not apply to an election in which she is a candidate. … If super PACs come to respond to Gorbea’s cry for help by running abortion ads, Gorbea should expect a complaint to be filed against her.”
The party alleged that Gorbea’s use of red-boxing violates state elections law, citing the definition of illegal coordination. Board of Elections records show no outside groups have so far disclosed plans to spend money on TV ads boosting Gorbea.
The GOP noted that Gorbea is at a financial disadvantage in the Democratic primary for governor, highlighting that former CVS executive Helena Foulkes has a super PAC waiting in the wings to assist her and incumbent Dan McKee is benefiting from a half-million-dollar TV buy funded by the Laborers union.
“But, that is no excuse to try and break the law,” the GOP statement continued. “The chief election officer of the state of Rhode Island should not be trying to undermine a fair election.”
Pat Cortellessa, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for secretary of state against Gorbea in 2018 and is seeking the office again this year, echoed the criticism.
“I find it incomprehensible for the secretary of state who is the chief election official breaking the election law of sending messages through her Web site page to nationwide PACs,” he wrote in an email. He added that it was “even more concerning” that Gorbea’s campaign has argued she “had to go rouge to make up the difference” in campaign cash against her rivals.
Gorbea’s campaign did not respond to the criticism from Republicans.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, declined to say if he agreed with the Republicans’ interpretation of state law but reiterated his disappointment in Gorbea’s campaign.
“Circumventing our campaign finance system by ‘red boxing” is wrong,” Marion said. “Candidates should not be coordinating with organizations who are engaged in independent expenditures, and those who do should be held accountable.”
However, Marion also questioned the sincerity of local Republicans’ statement, since national GOP leaders such as Mitch McConnell have been strong supporters of loosening campaign-finance rules around outside spending.
“It’s hypocritical for the GOP — whose attacks on our campaign finance system resulted in the terrible Citizens United decision and the subsequent proliferation of unlimited dark money spending — to cast stones,” he said.
The two Democrats seeking to succeed Gorbea as secretary of state — state Rep. Gregg Amore and first-time candidate Stephanie Beauté — declined to criticize her directly but distanced themselves from the use of red-boxing.
“The law is clear that candidates cannot coordinate with groups looking to do independent expenditures,” Amore said in a statement. “The real problem in our elections is that too many millionaires and billionaires are attempting to buy seats and influence election results with outside money flooding into politics.”
Amore said he wants to expand the state’s public financing system to include primary elections and General Assembly races, and to give higher public matching dollars for smaller individual contributions.
“The fundraising burden on candidates keeps too many people from seeking office and leads to a lack of diversity in experience and perspectives in elected office in Rhode Island,” Amore said.
Beauté said, “I strongly believe in following all campaign laws. As to whether Ms. Gorbea’s website violated red-boxing requirements forbidding connections between outside PAC money and the candidate’s website contributions, I defer to the judgment of the R.I. Board of Elections as they’re well equipped to resolve any issues.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.