“Hello, this is Gov. Ron DeSantis. I’m calling you to get your ballot in today for U.S. Sen. Mike Lee,” Utah voters heard in a robocall made Wednesday.
A call like this is typical in an election as close as Utah’s U.S. Senate race, but this one was missing something — a required disclosure of who paid for the call.
According to federal elections laws, all public communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate must include a disclaimer noting who paid for the ad. The 45-second call ended without including such a disclaimer.
Campaign staff for both Lee and DeSantis did not immediately respond to inquiries about the robocall.
A spokesperson for the Federal Election Commission said they could not comment on the ad, and pointed The Salt Lake Tribune to advertising guidance on its website, which says, “Disclaimers must be ‘clear and conspicuous’ regardless of the medium in which the communication is transmitted.”
The FCC’s Rules for Political Campaign Calls and Texts say that “All prerecorded voice message calls, campaign-related and otherwise, must include certain identification information,” which includes the identity of the business, individual, or other entity initiating the call, and the telephone number of the calling party.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, the only group to pay for get-out-the-vote calls in the last month in Utah’s U.S. Senate race was a super PAC called Protect Freedom Political Action Committee, which most recently spent $1,967 on Nov. 1 for these types of calls.
A 2020 statement of organization by the super PAC — an FEC filing that typically includes contact information, the names of treasurers and other designated agents and information on the financial institutions where the committee houses its funds — only includes contact information for its treasurer, a Georgia-based campaign finance consultant named Paul Kilgore, and a colleague at his consultancy firm.
Kilgore did not respond to a request for comment.
A Michael Biundo, who identified himself as a senior advisor to Protect Freedom PAC in an email sent to The Tribune on Thursday, said the PAC is not responsible for the robocalls and that it has “not done any calls using Governor DeSantis.”
However, Biundo — who is listed as a partner on Ascent Strategic’s website, a political consultant who claims Protect Freedom PAC as a client — refused to clarify what the $1,967 expenditure went toward and the content of its get-out-the-vote calls.
Super PAC support in Utah
Protect Freedom PAC has so far spent over $850,000 supporting Lee in Utah. Most of that has been on digital and broadcast advertising.
Ads posted on the PAC’s website criticize McMullin for having supporters who advocate for transgender women and girls to have the opportunity to play in sports leagues that affirm their gender identity, and for his 2020 vote for President Joe Biden, emphasizing the president’s position on abortion.
DeSantis, who has emerged as a nationally-known Republican politician, was also featured endorsing Lee in a television ad that went live Wednesday morning. That ad was funded by super PAC Club for Growth Action.
A spokesperson for Club for Growth Action confirmed to The Tribune that despite the DeSantis TV endorsement coinciding with the robocalls, it did not pay for the calls.
McMullin is suing Club for Growth Action for an earlier ad, which was doctored to make it sound as if the independent candidate said “the Republican base is racist — these bigots” in an appearance on CNN. Club for Growth Action has so far spent millions on advertising in this race.
The focus of Wednesday’s new TV ad, with an electric guitar riffing in the background, was DeSantis’ hopes that voters elect a Republican majority to the Senate.
“(McMullin is) no independent, he’s a donkey in sheep’s clothing,” DeSantis said. “He’ll be a vote for Biden, not for Utah.”
Although McMullin is a self-described conservative and not a Democrat — and has promised not to caucus with Democrats or Republicans — a victory for the independent candidate would mean one fewer seat for Republicans in the Senate.
As the DeSantis ad was launched Wednesday morning, former President Donald Trump released a statement of his own.
“The Great People of Utah have a gem in Mike Lee. He will never let you down, whereas his opponent, McMuffin, will only let you down,” Trump said in an email.
McMullin’s campaign responds
DeSantis is a speculated 2024 presidential candidate, and if he runs, he could face Trump in the Republican primary election. The pair are holding dueling midterm rallies in Florida on Sunday.
The Florida governor became a household name following his hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, often called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, he signed into law. The act prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in public school classrooms from kindergarten to third grade.
“Evan McMullin isn’t interested in playing party politics. Senator Lee is, and has been a loyal sycophant when convenient for his own political future. People have had enough of Lee’s broken politics that put special interest groups and party bosses ahead of Utahns,” said Kelsey Koenen Witt, a spokesperson for McMullin’s campaign, in a statement addressing the TV ad and Trump’s support.
She continued, “The Utahns and public servants that aren’t supporting Lee — including Senator Mitt Romney and so many others — speak volumes about Senator Lee’s broken politics and failed leadership.”
In recent weeks, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman endorsed Lee, and former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard came to Utah to stump for the senator. McMullin has gained endorsements from House Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger, former Utah Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams and actor Mark Hamill.
Correction • This article was updated to include details sent to The Salt Lake Tribune by a consultant for Protect Freedom PAC and to add information from a Federal Election Commission statement of organization that did not appear with filings for the 2022 election cycle.