Evan McMullin’s campaign is suing Club for Growth Action, a super PAC supporting his opponent, Sen. Mike Lee, and three television stations in Utah for defamation after running a “deceptive” ad that distorts comments made by the independent candidate on CNN in 2017.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday addresses a television ad that began airing last week, in which McMullin is falsely quoted as saying “the Republican base is racist — these bigots” in an edited CNN clip. The ad ran on ABC 4, Fox 13, KUTV and KSL, according to the lawsuit.
In the ad, a woman responds to McMullin’s doctored remarks, saying, “What Evan McMullin says — that doesn’t feel kind. He’s derogatory toward a huge group of people.”
The quote was pulled and edited from comments McMullin made on a CNN segment after a Nazi sympathizer killed a woman protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
What McMullin actually said on CNN was: “Not all Republicans, of course, are racist. I was raised by Republicans who are not at all, and who welcome Americans of all backgrounds, and are not at all like this — but there is an element of the Republican base that is racist.”
The lawsuit filed in Utah’s Third District Court asks for monetary damages, citing the cost of corrective advertising and reputation management, and for an injunction to stop the ad from airing.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, McMullin said, “The issue here is that if we don’t stand up to these lies now, they’re going to get worse. We live in an age of disinformation and conspiracism that has, I think, infected our politics broadly in America.”
According to Federal Communications Commission filings, Club for Growth Action has paid local stations hundreds of thousands of dollars to air ads in this year’s election.
Club for Growth Action is the expenditure-only political action committee, or super PAC, of Club for Growth, an organization advocating for conservative economic policy.
On Club for Growth Action’s website, Lee is quoted, endorsing the super PAC, saying “What Club for Growth Action does is to help candidates, conservative candidates, get an edge that they might not otherwise have.”
After the campaign sent letters to Utah’s four major TV stations warning them that “knowingly airing falsehoods ... exposes your station to possible legal liability,” KSL, according to the court filing, pulled the ad. It is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“Club for Growth Action, specifically, is a repeat player in this space. And the broadcast stations named in this Complaint should hold themselves to a higher standard so as not to cheapen Utah’s public discourse,” the lawsuit says.
McMullin’s campaign held a news conference last week addressing the deceptive ad, and Fox 13, one of the defendants, ran a story based on remarks made there. That story is cited in McMullin’s complaint as showing that the station “acted with knowledge of the falsity of the Ad, or with reckless disregard of its falsity.”
Two of the TV stations whose parent companies are named in the lawsuit did not respond to requests for comment. ABC 4 General Manager Mark Danielson said the station is reviewing the complaint.
“We do view this as something that stations are liable for airing,” said Andrew Roberts, McMullin’s campaign manager, at Thursday’s news conference. He added that the ad was defamatory and mischaracterized McMullin’s comment on CNN.
The ad is still posted on Club for Growth Action’s YouTube channel, and a news release announcing and summarizing the ad remains on its website.
Club for Growth Action President David McIntosh is quoted in the release as saying, “Despite claiming he would be an independent voice in the Senate, Evan McMullin showed his true colors by calling the Republican party racists.”
In a statement emailed to The Tribune on Tuesday, McIntosh said, “Evan McMullin will do anything to hide his past statements about Republicans. The fact is he still hasn’t paid his lawyers from his last vanity campaign, so unless his team is working pro-bono, we should expect this stunt to fall apart.”
According to the Federal Election Commission’s website, McMullin owes over $600,000 from his 2016 presidential campaign. While some presidential candidates end their campaigns without any debt, many finish owing large amounts of money. Former President Barack Obama, for example, still owes over $5 million from his 2012 campaign.
During the primary election, Club for Growth Action ran an ad in North Carolina attacking Republican Senate candidate Pat McCrory. That ad, like the one attacking McMullin, was doctored to show McCrory praising Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and criticizing former President Donald Trump.
CNN reported that the comments about Romney were made during the senator’s 2012 presidential run, and the ones made about Trump were edited to be even more critical than what the North Carolina candidate said during a radio show he co-hosted.
On its website, Club for Growth Action boasts of helping McCrory’s opponent, Ted Budd, win his primary election.
When reached by The Tribune, a spokesperson for Lee’s campaign did not comment on the content of the ad.
“Coordination between a campaign and a political action committee is prohibited by the Federal Election Commission,” the spokesperson said in a text message. “Our campaign has no control over the content of the message or how it is used.”
McMullin said that if Lee does not denounce the ad, he feels the senator “deserves some of the responsibility for it.”
“If Sen. Lee considers himself a principled person, and if he truly is, he should condemn this ad,” McMullin told The Tribune.
The independent candidate’s campaign has launched an ad responding to the attack ad.
“While all who practice in politics understand it is not a gentle profession, factual distortions that threaten the interest of the public in fair elections, and that wrongfully slander hard-won reputations, cross the line,” the court filing says.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Carlene Coombs contributed to this story.