MailGate: the Candidate Mailer that Shouldn’t Have Happened

Let’s cut through the nonsense. Bill Howell’s mail piece that was sent out by RPV was a campaign piece, and Bill Howell is clearly in a contested primary. Ergo, RPV should not have sent it.

This fuss started a couple days ago when it came out that the Republican Party of Virginia paid for a mailer to residents of Speaker Howell’s district. The piece was ostensibly an “issues survey,” but was adorned with lots of pictures of Howell and his family, along with his campaign logo, and encouragement to go to his campaign website, Facebook page, and Twitter account. And oh yeah, it also asked some hard hitting questions, like:

Do you support mandatory reporting requirements that require college administrators to report all allegations of rape or sexual assault to law enforcement, even if the victim does not press charges? [check support or oppose]

Pardon me for being cynical, but we all know these “issues surveys” are much more about simply engaging and persuading voters than they are an actual sincere effort to find out what constituents think. But that’s really beside the point, as is the umbrage taken with Ms. Stimpson’s email reaction to the mail piece. (As a State Central Committee member, I had my own issues with that email that I took directly to Stimpson).

Regardless of the earnestness (or lack thereof) of these kinds of pieces, the Republican Party of Virginia Plan of Organization is very clear that the Party “shall not endorse, nor contribute to from its funds, any candidate who is running for a Republican nomination for public office unless that candidate is unopposed for that nomination.” Sending out “The Howell Report” with his campaign logo and campaign website and glossy professional pics of him and his family, when it is “Paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia,” at the very least constitutes an in-kind contribution to his campaign, and at the very worst could be misinterpreted as an outright endorsement of Howell (particularly in the absence of a similar mailer from his opponent). That a campaign piece disguises itself as an issues survey does not immunize it from application of RPV’s rules. This isn’t rocket science, folks.

My good friend John Whitbeck, the new RPV Chairman, disagrees with this characterization on the basis that the piece was an issues survey sent ahead of the legislative session, and that the piece is returned to RPV as a means to aggregate responses and communicate them to legislators. This is apparently in line with past practice, so that’s fine, but it should be pointed out that in addition to the questionnaire, the mailer also included the following:

"The Howell Report"
“The Howell Report”

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I note the return address isn’t anywhere near 115 Grace Street in Richmond.

Please note: I am not casting aspersions on anyone here. With respect to the Speaker, it’s not his job to police RPV. With respect to RPV, clearly to the extent we’re just going along with past practice, that past practice was mistaken and we need to fix it and move on. With respect to John Whitbeck, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want his job.

At the end of the day, the whole reason we have this rule is to avoid anyone’s impression that there is an impropriety, and that RPV or any other official committee has picked sides.

Clearly the rule didn’t work in this case.

Cross-posted to The Bull Elephant.