GOP alleged Democrats had improperly coordinated with special interest groups with mailings, door hangers. However, the Elections Commissioner ruled against many of the complaints after a preliminary investigation.

The Delaware Election Commissioner ruled against the Delaware Republican party’s claim about the Democratic candidate in the 10th District state Senate race.

However, one of the Republicans’ accusations about improper “express advocacy” campaigning by a special interest group was upheld by the commissioner’s preliminary investigation.

Republican Party’s allegations

Delaware’s Republican Party accused a political action committee and a construction union group with campaign violations in the special state Senate election in the Middletown-Newark area.

On Tuesday, the Delaware Republican Party lodged a complaint against the First State Strong political action committee (PAC) for sending out mailers that allegedly attack 10th District state Senate Republican candidate John Marino.

The Republican Party also filed a complaint against the Delaware Building and Trades Council for allegedly using “expressed advocacy” during a recent canvassing event with “door hanger” campaign flyers in support of 10th District Democratic candidate Stephanie Hansen at the Local 74 Plumbers and Pipefitters.

Republican Party Chairman Charlie Copeland said the groups engaged in express advocacy, which isn’t permitted.

When an independent group is coordinating efforts with a candidate, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Congress’ ability to regulate express advocacy ads from those groups which advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate, or “if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than an appeal to vote for or against a certain candidate.”

Issue advocacy, which focuses on political issues rather than the candidate, is unregulated and can be used in coordination with campaigns.

For First State Strong, this means that if they are coordinating with the Hansen campaign, then any ads featuring express advocacy are not permitted, and Copeland accused First State Strong of coordinating with the Hansen campaign.

“We will not know who paid for these ads until January 20, 2018 at the earliest, but I can guarantee that they’re being coordinated with the Hansen campaign,” said Copeland. “And the Election Commissioner is duty bound to investigate this shadowy PAC and find the truth.

The PAC has raised over $186,000 since being registered on Jan. 5, with one of the donations coming in at over $92,000. A portion of that money has been put into sending out the mailers that Copeland said use express advocacy. 

“What you can do is say ‘John Doe supports better schools, call John Doe and tell him you agree with his stance.’ What you can’t do is say ‘John Doe is bad for Delaware, we don’t need John Doe,’ because what you are basically saying is to vote against him. Independent entities cannot do that unless they are not coordinating with the campaign.”

Hansen's campaign refutes Republican claims

Hansen called the Republican Party’s claim “absurd on its face.”

“Cycle after cycle, Charlie Copeland and John Marino shamelessly hurl accusations for which they have no evidence,” Erik Raser-Schramm, Hansen's campaign manager said. “It's particularly troubling given Copeland's well known history of heading up right-wing PAC expenditures while serving as the chairman of the Delaware Republican Party.”

Copeland said the issue of “proof” would be resolved if the First State Strong PAC would be transparent by publishing a list of its donors.

“Why doesn’t Hansen want these donors to be transparent?” Copeland asked. “What is Hansen trying to hide?”

First State Strong responded in a statement by Jonathan Berkon, the PAC’s counsel, calling the Republicans’ complaint “frivolous.”

“First State Strong PAC has not made contributions to, or coordinated expenditures with, candidates,” Berkon said. “All of its expenditures in connection with the special election have been wholly independent from Ms. Hansen.”

Building and Trade Council calls accusations ‘alternative facts’

 When it comes to the Delaware Building and Trades Council, Copeland said the problem was with the door hangers left during a canvassing held for Stephanie Hansen Feb. 11. The canvassing was held by the Local 74 Plumbers and Pipefitters, which is part of the Delaware Building and Trade Council.

Copeland said the door hangers showed express advocacy by reading, “Remember, vote Stephanie Hansen for Senate,” and were paid for by the Building and Trade Council.

James Maravelias, President of the Delaware Building and Trading Council, shrugged off the complaints, calling them “alternative facts.”

“The real fact is, labor unions are legally permitted to communicate directly with their members,” Maravelias said. “And that is what we did and will continue to do, so our members understand the stakes of this special election and understand how Republican views and policy proposals hurt Delaware’s working families. Period.

“It’s interesting that, two weeks from the election, Mr. Copeland feels compelled to fabricate a story where none exists to divert voters’ attention from their party’s weak candidate.”

Copeland argues that the door hangers are not permitted since they feature express advocacy, and he said there is ample evidence of direct coordination between the Building and Trade Council and Hansen’s campaign.

“They were there with her, canvassing with her, doing a literature drop with her that weekend,” Copeland said. “It’s hard to argue that you aren’t coordinating with the campaign if you are there.”

Election Commissioner rules ‘no coordination’ between groups and Hansen campaign

Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove launched a preliminary investigation into the complaints.

Friday afternoon, she concluded that the mailers from First State Strong did not constitute any express advocacy, and that was no coordination between the Delaware Building and Trading Council and the Hansen campaign.

“I rely upon the analysis contained in the Attorney General’s opinion arising from the Burris-Rochford Education Mailing Plan,” Manlove wrote. “The opinion defined ‘express advocacy’ as ‘speech which expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate, with expressed terms such as ‘vote for,’ ‘elect,’ ‘defeat.’”

Manlove did conclude that the door hangers distributed by the Building and Trade Council “clearly constitutes” express advocacy. However, she found no base for the claims that there was coordination between Hansen’s campaign and the Council, noting that just because Hansen showed up at one branch of the Building and Trade Council doesn’t mean another coordinated with her campaign in regards to the door hangers.

Manlove concluded her analysis by saying, “Based on this preliminary investigation of a complaint made in such close proximity to the election, that the door hangers did not constitute a contribution to the candidate’s campaign.”

Republicans respond to Manlove's ruling

After Manlove released her decisions on the two issues of the GOP complaint, Copeland sent out a scathing press release, disagreeing with the election commissioner's rulings.

"This is a sad day for Delaware....This ruling strikes directly at the root of our government," Copeland said.

He said the party will be seeking a judicial review of the commissioner's ruling. 

"This simply cannot be allowed," Copeland said.