Connecticut Republican Party Chairman JR Romano is accusing, in an election complaint, a Democratic state Senate candidate of violating clean election laws by likening his Republican opponent to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Tim Bowles, whose campaign is being run by the Vinci Group, ran a photo of his Republican opponent, Heather Somers, next to Trump under a headline that reads “Con Artists We Can’t Afford.” The mailer also includes an editorial page headline from The Day newspaper that reads, “Somers Flunks the Trump Test.”
The mailer was paid for by Bowles 2016 campaign under the Citizens Election Program. Bowles qualified for the $95,710 state grant to fund his campaign and makes no apologies for sending the mailer.
“The SEEC should not be legislating freedom of speech,” Francesca Capodilupo, Bowles’ campaign manager, said. “Heather Somers was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump until the last possible minute, when it became politically convenient for her to distance herself.”
Romano said that doesn’t mean Bowles gets to violate campaign finance laws.
A 2014 opinion by the State Elections Enforcement Commission found that candidate committees are not allowed to spend money on any other race but their own. In the case of Bowles mailer, it mentions a candidate running for president. If the mailer had been sent by the Democratic Party, which can spend money on both state and federal elections, then it might have been a permissible expenditure, according to the 2014 opinion.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission received the complaint Monday, but it’s unlikely to be addressed before the Nov. 8 election.
“This goes to show you Democrats have no interest in understanding the laws or respecting the regulatory body that makes them,” Romano said of Bowles and the Democratic Party.
Bowles’ campaign said it’s a matter of free speech.
“This is a question of free speech, and Tim Bowles will never back down from Republican insiders like Heather Somers,” Capodilupo said.
Romano said he put the Democratic Party on notice back in June that it was not going to be able to use Trump in its campaign literature.
But his warnings fell on deaf ears.
“Bowles is so desperate to get back to Hartford, he is willing to violate election law to get there,” Romano said in an email.
The Democratic Party was quick to point out that Republicans have run afoul of the same law.
In August, Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, refused to sign a settlement agreement with election regulators for using Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in their 2014 mailings. Malloy was running for election that year so any use of his image would not have been allowed unless the Republican Party or his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, paid for a portion of the mailer.
“Does the SEEC believe that political speech permitted one year may be forbidden in another?” Sampson said. “I cannot imagine a First Amendment restriction more capricious and vulnerable to challenge, profoundly limiting a candidate’s ability to communicate.”
Leigh Appleby, a spokesman for the Connecticut Democratic Party, said Romano is being hypocritical in filing this complaint against Democrats when members of his party were accused of the same infraction earlier this year.
“Does this mean they are also denouncing the actions of Joe Markley and Rob Sampson? They can’t have it both ways,” Appleby said.
The 2014 opinion was issued just weeks before the election and the investigations against at least 16 Republican candidates who used Malloy’s name on mailings weren’t completed until this summer.
Some Republican lawmakers or candidates have signed the agreements and others are still pending.
Josh Foley, a spokesman for the SEEC, has said he can’t comment on the cases, which are considered pending investigations.
“We do not comment on pending investigations and do not try our cases in the press,” Foley said. “However, any respondent to a complaint is entitled to full administrative hearing before a hearing officer appointed by our bipartisan commission, at which time they can make any legal arguments they wish.”
Regardless of what’s happening with complaints against Republican candidates, Romano pointed out that his party is not the one that agreed to pay election regulators $325,000 to settle a dispute over how it spent money in 2014. The Connecticut Democratic Party’s spending and fundraising decisions from 2014 are still being investigated by a federal grand jury.