The FEC mandate, which comes as the result of a case brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and argued in part by The Campaign Legal Center's Paul Ryan, means that the groups must now use, as Ryan says, certain "magic words like 'vote for' or 'vote against'" in order to legally keep their donors' names out of the public sphere.
"The irony," he explains, "is that the more explicitly the ad pushes one particular candidate, the less disclosure is required."
That's where the IRS comes in – or could - Ryan says, if it chooses to be more engaged.
Crossroads GPS maintains its tax-exempt status specifically because it does not – or has not to this point – released so-called independent expenditure ads. That's the legal term for spots that openly push for or against a candidate's election. If the FEC ruling in the Van Hollen case pushes groups like Crossroads GPS too deep into that kind of advertising, the IRS could revoke their exemptions and put a crimp in their finances.
Electioneering communications are television spots that refer to federal candidates but stop short of advocating for their election or defeat and that air within 30 days before a primary (or before the first day of a national nominating convention) and 60 days before the general election.
According to the FEC, the electioneering communications window before the Democratic National Convention begins Aug. 4. However, the commission has offered confusing guidance on the topic: Last week, its website identified the start the period as Aug. 7, which the FEC then said was a mistake, noting the correct date was Aug. 4.
“The commission regrets the error,” the FEC said in a statement posted on its website Friday.
“The commission will exercise its prosecutorial discretion and will not take enforcement action with respect to communications disbursements made in reasonable reliance on the erroneous information on the website in connection with EC reporting.”
Officials with Crossroads GPS appear confident that because of the confusion, the group will not be forced to reveal its contributors
“Crossroads has no plans to air ads that will trigger reporting in the [electioneering communications] window,” spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in a statement.