Kid Rock sends $122K from fake campaign to voter group

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Kid Rock last month donated $122,000 of the money raised by selling merchandise promoting “Kid Rock for US Senate” — his fake political campaign — to a voter-registration organization affiliated with the College Republicans, his publicist said.

Kid Rock, whose real name is Robert Ritchie, for more than three months last year teased a Republican run for Senate against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing but later revealed it was a publicity stunt amid the launch of his latest album and tour.

“(Expletive) no, I’m not running for Senate. Are you (expletive) kidding me?” Rock told shock jock Howard Stern on his radio show in October. “Who couldn’t (expletive) figure that out?”

Earlier, while exploring a “very possible campaign,” Kid Rock said in July that money raised “at this time” from the sale of political yard signs, bumper stickers, hats and T-shirts would benefit a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization he would create to promote voter registration.

“Not only can I raise money for this critical cause, but I can help get people registered to vote at my shows,” Rock wrote on his blog.

“The media has speculated this was a ploy to sell shirts or promote something. I can tell you, I have no problem selling Kid Rock shirts and yes, I absolutely will use this media circus to sell/promote whatever I damn well please.”

The Michigan rocker, who lives in Clarkston, apparently never created that 501(c)(4) organization. He also never created a campaign committee or filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Instead, the money raised went to CRNC Action, an affiliate of the College Republicans that did voter-registration work last summer at his concerts, said Kid Rock publicist Jay Jones.

“All of the money raised from the political merchandise was sent directly to CRNC Action. The total is approximately 100k,” Jones said by email.

Ted Dooley, the president of CRNC Action, confirmed that a donation of about $122,000 was made in early December. He also confirmed the group staffed the voter-registration tables at Kid Rock’s concerts last summer.

“The work was pretty much like other voter registration work we do — set up and man voter registration booths, collect the registration forms, and submit them — except a lot more fun,” Dooley said.

Neither Dooley nor Jones provided a receipt or other proof of the contribution when requested by The Detroit News.

CRNC Action, as a 501(c)(4) organization, is not required by law to publicly disclose the contribution, according to campaign finance experts.

“If the money came from Kid Rock and went to the 501(c)(4), there would not be any public disclosure of it,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center’s Federal and FEC Reform Program.

“They don’t have to disclose where their money came from.”

FEC scrutiny expected

The Warner Bros. Records website selling “Kid Rock for US Senate” goods says it has sold out of the yard signs and bumper stickers but still offers T-shirts and baseball caps for sale.

The site previously listed a disclaimer for each “Kid Rock for US Senate” item that said: “All proceeds go to voter registration efforts. This is not a political contribution.” That disclaimer no longer appears on the website.

“After Bob said on Howard Stern that he wasn’t going to be a politician, there was no need for the disclaimer anymore,” Jones told The News.

While the cash may have been donated, the FEC still is likely to be looking at the early weeks of Kid Rock’s campaign.

The watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint with the FEC and the U.S. Department of Justice in September, alleging that the Romeo-born musician was violating federal law by acting like a Senate candidate without registering his candidacy or complying with campaign finance rules on contributions and spending.

Federal election law says candidates must register with the FEC when they or their representatives raise or spend more than $5,000 for the purpose of influencing an election.

Common Cause contends that Kid Rock received or spent more than $5,000 through the purchase or sale of the “Kid Rock for US Senate” merchandise.

Authorizing a statement referring to oneself as a candidate, like “Smith for Senate,” also indicates that an individual has decided to become a candidate, triggering legal obligations under federal regulations — even if a candidate subsequently retracts that statement, according to a 2015 advisory opinion from the FEC.

The complaint also named Warner Bros. Records Inc., alleging the record label violated election law by facilitating contributions and acting as a conduit for contributions for Kid Rock’s campaign.

Corporations and labor groups are prohibited from contributing to or acting as conduits for contributions to federal candidates. This includes using corporate resources to engage in fundraising activities in connection with a federal election.

Representatives for Warner Bros. Records did not respond to requests for comment.

The FEC has confirmed it received the Common Cause complaint but would not provide any additional information. The commission is prohibited by law from publicly discussing complaints or enforcement action until the case is resolved.

Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation for Common Cause, said the FEC usually takes more than a year, sometimes several years, to resolve complaints. He said Kid Rock’s donation to CRNC Action “doesn’t really impact our complaint.”

“Candidates — which is what we allege he was — have broad latitude with how they dispose of leftover or surplus campaign funds, which is how I would characterize these funds,” Ryan said.

“The only thing a candidate can’t do with leftover campaign funds is pocket them — i.e., ‘convert them to personal use’ in campaign finance law-speak. It’s permissible for a candidate to give leftover campaign funds to a 501(c)(4) organization, so the fact that Kid Rock did so here doesn’t raise any new legal red flags.”

The Campaign Legal Center’s Fischer said the FEC could decide that Kid Rock was legally operating as a candidate and raising money for his campaign, ordering him to comply with legal requirements such as disclosing contributions over $200 and how that money was spent.

Celebrity precedents loom

A more likely outcome would be for the FEC to find technical violations of the law without declaring Kid Rock a candidate — letting the whole thing pass as a matter of prosecutorial discretion, Fischer said.

“As more and more celebrities seriously consider runs for office, you could see scenarios like this arising again, where you have a well-known media personality or a celebrity announce a run for office, meets all the requirements for candidacy but claims it’s all a joke. When in the meantime, they are seriously gauging a run for office,” Fischer said.

“Even in this instance, when Kid Rock has disavowed his run for office, there is a reason to look seriously at these kinds of efforts because there’s obviously a trend for celebrities running for office.”

At least some members of the political establishment thought or hoped Kid Rock was serious about a run in Michigan.

Steven Law, head of a super political action committee aligned with Senate GOP leadership, in August encouraged Rock to go for it, telling C-SPAN that his group would “actually be very interested in his candidacy.”

“If you’re watching, Kid, we hope you run,” said Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund.

More recently, Kid Rock was photographed at the Jan. 6 Detroit Pistons game with GOP primary candidate John James, an Iraq veteran from Farmington Hills who is running for Senate.

It’s unclear whether Rock intends to endorse in the race.

“Stay tuned,” said Tori Sachs, James’ campaign manager.

Also seeking the GOP nomination is Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler, who recently pumped $5 million of his own money into his campaign.

Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth term, raised $1.9 million in the last quarter of 2017 and has roughly $8 million on hand, her campaign said.

She won re-election by wide margins in 2006 and 2012, defeating Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard and former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra with 57 percent and 59 percent of the vote, respectively.

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