Facing a threat from his left flank, Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon wanted to send an urgent message to allies ahead of his upcoming primary: It was time to go on the attack.
The challenge: Campaign finance rules bar candidates from directly coordinating with the very outside groups that Mr. Schrader, a top moderate in Congress, needed to alert. So instead, he used a little red box.
On April 29, Mr. Schrader issued a not-quite-private directive inside a red-bordered box on an obscure corner of his website, sketching out a three-pronged takedown of what he called his “toxic” challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner — helpfully including a link to a two-page, opposition-research document about her tenure as a city manager.
The message was received.
On May 3, a super PAC that has received all its money from a secret-money group with ties to the pharmaceutical industry began running television ads that did little more than copy, paste and reorder the precise three lines of attack Mr. Schrader had outlined.
From Oregon to Texas, North Carolina to Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates nationwide are using such red boxes to pioneer new frontiers in soliciting and directing money from friendly super PACs financed by multimillionaires, billionaires and special-interest groups.
Campaign watchdogs complain that the practice further blurs the lines meant to keep big-money interests from influencing people running for office, effectively evading the strict donation limits imposed on federal candidates. And while the tactic is not new to 2022, it is becoming so widespread that a New York Times survey of candidate websites found at least 19 Democrats deploying some version of a red box in four of the states holding contested congressional primaries on Tuesday.
The practice is both brazen and breathtakingly simple. To work around the prohibition on directly coordinating with super PACs, candidates are posting their instructions to them inside the red boxes on public pages that super PACs continuously monitor.
The boxes highlight the aspects of candidates’ biographies that they want amplified and the skeletons in their opponents’ closets that they want exposed. Then, they add instructions that can be extremely detailed: Steering advertising spending to particular cities or counties, asking for different types of advertising and even slicing who should be targeted by age, gender and ethnicity.
“Liberals, voters under 50 and women — across only San Antonio, Guadalupe and Atascosa counties,” reads the targeting guidance from Jessica Cisneros, a Democratic challenger in South Texas.
“Black voters ages 45+ in Durham and white women ages 45+ in Orange” was the recent directive from Valerie Foushee, a Democratic House candidate in North Carolina locked in a competitive primary for an open seat.
Red-boxing spans the ideological spectrum of the Democratic Party, from Blue Dog Democrats like Mr. Schrader to progressives like his challenger and Ms. Cisneros, who has the backing of the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats as she tries to unseat Representative Henry Cuellar.
It is not clear why Democratic candidates have so thoroughly embraced the red box tactic in primaries while Republicans have not. Republicans work hand in glove with their super PACs, too, but in different ways.
In 2014, some Republican groups tried using anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data through coded tweets. More recently, J.D. Vance outsourced some of his Ohio Senate campaign’s most basic operations. His allied super PAC, funded by $15 million from the Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, posted troves of internal and polling data on an unpublicized Medium page that campaign officials used to guide decisions.
The Vance super PAC was so central to the campaign that when Mr. Vance walked onstage at a rally with Donald J. Trump, the cameraman filming him from behind worked for the super PAC, not the Vance campaign.
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