Kid Rock accused of violating election law

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A Calif. group called ‘Common Cause’ has accused Kid Rock of violating federal election law by declaring himself a candidate for a Senate seat in the state of Michigan, but not registering his candidacy or reporting campaign contributions.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A watchdog group today accused Detroit musician Kid Rock of violating federal election law by declaring himself a candidate for a Senate seat in Michigan but not registering his candidacy or reporting campaign contributions.

The group Common Cause filed the complaint with the Federal Election Commission and also asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate whether the musician —whose real name is Robert Ritchie — has violated election law.

“Given the activities we’ve documented in the complaint, he can’t reasonably claim to be merely testing the waters of candidacy and thus exempt from candidate filing requirements,” said Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation. “He is a candidate and is obligated to abide by all the rules.”

Ritchie dismissed the allegations, issuing the following statement, “I am starting to see reports from the misinformed press and the fake news on how I am in violation of breaking campaign law. #1: I have still not officially announced my candidacy. #2: See #1 and go f— yourselves.”

The FEC acknowledged receipt of the complaint but couldn’t say more. Complaints and any investigations they spark are kept confidential until such time as the commission acts upon them — a process that can take years.

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In many cases, such complaints lead to no action whatsoever.

For months, it has been far from clear whether Kid Rock intends to run for the seat currently held by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., next year: He has made only cryptic remarks about his intentions and in July said he would hold off on a decision, using funds raised through merchandise sales to fund voter registration efforts instead.

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But earlier statements he made were less clear, saying a website “kidrockforsenate.com” was “real,” selling T-shirts and other merchandise reading “Kid Rock for U.S. Senate” and publicizing polls that suggested he would do well if he chose to run for office.

Election law states that “written or oral statements” made or authorized by a person that refer to him or her as a candidate generally indicate that person is no longer exploring a candidacy and must meet campaign finance reporting and registration requirements. 

But election law is also famously squishy and open to interpretation. While a person who is deemed a candidate — typically after raising or spending $5,000 or more on a campaign — has 15 days to register, it may be less clear whether someone who says he hasn’t made his mind up should be considered a candidate, even if he is selling merchandise that may suggest he is.

Election law only governs candidates, parties, groups and others involved in campaigns and making or receiving contributions — not private citizens engaged in conduct outside the election sphere.

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Warner Bros. Records Inc. — which the complaint alleges may have violated election law by facilitating contributions to Ritchie by selling merchandise — did not immediately comment on the complaint. Corporations are prohibited from making contributions to federal candidates.

Ryan argued that even if Kid Rock and Warner Bros. claim they have not violated election law because he is not currently a candidate, past FEC rulings suggest otherwise. He said that even though Ritchie’s July 26 statement said only that he was “exploring” a run, that doesn’t negate the clear intention behind selling shirts, yard signs, hats and other merchandise that say “Kid Rock for Senate.”

“Federal law is clear,” Ryan said, that statements such as “Kid Rock for Senate” — even if expressed on a T-shirt, as long as the person it refers to has authorized it — triggers a person’s candidacy under the law that he or she cannot simply retract. 

Generally speaking, potential candidates under federal election law can claim an exemption from reporting requirements if they are “testing the waters” of a candidacy. But Ryan said Kid Rock’s statements are a “textbook” example of someone crossing the line to becoming a candidate, a threshold that under federal election law requires the person to form a committee and report contributions and expenses. 

Ritchie has had his name bandied about by Republicans eager to knock off Stabenow, a Democrat who is expected to run for her fourth term next year. The Detroit rocker is close to President Trump and made a much-publicized visit to the White House this year with Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent.

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Little polling has been done on how a match-up with Stabenow would play out, but at least one poll suggested Kid Rock could win. That said, Ritchie would almost certainly have to be listed on the ballot under his real name — not Kid Rock — unless he legally changed it, which could dramatically hurt his chances.

And while it’s a fair bet other candidates would hit him on his former use of the Confederate flag as a backdrop at shows, his vulgar remarks and other controversies, it’s not known how eager Ritchie might be to do the grass-roots stumping generally required to win a statewide race against an entrenched incumbent.

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