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Washington — The Federal Election Commission by a 3-1 vote has dismissed a complaint about Kid Rock’s fake U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan, overruling the recommendation of the commission's career staff attorneys. 

Read more:Kid Rock booted from parade after profane TV remarks

The watchdog group Common Cause had alleged that Kid Rock, aka Robert Ritchie,  violated federal election law last year by acting like a Senate candidate while failing to register his candidacy or comply with rules on contributions and spending.

But Ritchie, a Clarkston resident, attested that his run for office was a "concert promotion," and use of "Kid Rock for US Senate" on merchandise was merely a slogan.

A majority of commissioners voted to close the case, with two of the Republican members issuing an explanation that investigating the claims was not worth the FEC's resources. 

Read: Mayor may boycott Kid Rock-led parade after his Joy Behar remarks

"Here, Ritchie states that the 'Kid Rock for US Senate' was not a sincere attempt to seek federal office, but rather continued a 'long line of celebrity parodies of running for office,'" Commissioners Caroline Hunter and Matthew S. Petersen wrote. 

"Celebrities do not enjoy immunity from commission enforcement. By the same token,
the commission must be cautious to avoid interference with the 'unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes.' 

"The free speech rights of many artists would be hollow indeed if, to avoid government investigation, they must parse their words when touching upon political issues and campaigns." 

Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, dissented, saying she believes Ritchie violated the law by failing to register and report as a U.S. Senate candidate to the FEC.  

"The reason is simple: There is only one objective meaning of the words 'Kid Rock for US Senate.' The law contains no exceptions for celebrities," Weintraub wrote. 

She noted the trend of celebrity candidates and imagined one running a "stealth" campaign while avoiding reporting requirements and claiming to promote a brand — only to later drop the run if support doesn't materialize.

The fourth commissioner, Republican Steven T. Walther, did not explain his reasoning.

Paul S. Ryan, the vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, stressed the FEC didn't say Ritchie never broke the law, only that his case is not worth pursuing. 

"That is not the vindication that Kid Rock or his lawyers would perhaps like the public to believe. There was no vindication here," Ryan said. 

Hunter and Petersen's reasoned that Ritchie was covered by an exception to the law for celebrity parody, but "there is no exception to the law," Ryan said. 

True celebrity parody would be comedian Stephen Colbert's 2012 announcement that he was running for the United States of South Carolina — an office that doesn't exist, Ryan said.

"A lot of people considered Donald Trump’s campaign to be celebrity parody in its early stages, and the Republicans don't acknowledge that in any way," Ryan added. "It's just a very weak basis for them not to pursue enforcement here."

A representative for Ritchie and his record label declined to comment. 

For more than three months last year, Ritchie teased a Republican run for Senate against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, creating a website, Twitter handle and selling "Kid Rock for US Senate" merchandise including yard signs and T-shirts.

He issued statements on Twitter and his website, including saying he was taking a "hard look to see if there was real support for me as a candidate and my message."

During his first September 2017 concert in Detroit and at subsequent performances, he gave a sing-songy stump speech that included denouncing racists, slamming welfare cheats and offering support for single mothers.

He later revealed it was a publicity stunt amid the launch of his latest album, "Sweet Southern Sugar," and tour.

"(Expletive) no, I'm not running for Senate. Are you (expletive) kidding me?" Ritchie told shock jock Howard Stern on his radio show in October 2017. "Who couldn't (expletive) figure that out?"

His representatives later said Ritchie had donated $122,000 of the money from the merchandise sales to a voter-registration organization affiliated with the College Republicans.

Ritchie subsequently endorsed and campaigned for GOP nominee John James in the Senate race. James lost this fall to Stabenow.

The complaint

Common Cause had contended that Ritchie received or spent more than $5,000 through the purchase or sale of the Senate "campaign" merchandise.

That would have triggered the requirement under federal election law that candidates for office register with the FEC within 15 days of surpassing the $5,000 threshold for contributions or spending.

And under FEC guidelines, authorizing a statement referring to themselves as a candidates (like "Smith for Senate") indicates individuals have decided to become candidates, as opposed to "testing the waters" for a campaign.

The FEC's career staff attorneys cited the regulations in finding that Ritchie's "Kid Rock for US Senate" merchandise triggered candidacy. 

But Hunter and Petersen said it would be an "inflexible application" of the rules, considering that Ritchie appears to have never taken "even the most basic steps to become a candidate" and later disclaimed that he was not running more than a year before the election. 

They also noted Ritchie's argument that he would not have been able to get his name on the Michigan ballot as "Kid Rock" due to state laws. 

Hunter and Petersen said every election cycle prompts a fresh crop of "testing the waters" complaints against candidates who violate campaign finance laws in the early stages of a campaign and actually go on to run for office.

"Thus, dismissal of this matter as an exercise in ordering commission enforcement priorities was not only reasonable but proper," they wrote. 

Ryan of Common Cause said he found that ironic considering the FEC isn't enforcing the law against candidates who do run. 

He noted a 2015 complaint he filed against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush alleging more than $100 million worth of campaign finance violations when Bush was exploring a run for president. That complaint is still pending before the commission, Ryan said.

"The Republican commissioners' explanations for why they aren't actually enforcing the laws with respect to Kid Rock really ring hollow," he said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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