Running for Congress has drawn scrutiny over Byron Donalds’ arrest record from his early 20s. But he said accusations that he supported President Barack Obama go too far.
The Naples Republican sent primary opponent Casey Askar a cease-and-desist letter demanding he stop accusing him of supporting the Democrat.
“We are investigating the many false and baseless statements that you have made about Mr. Donalds in your campaign advertisements,” Donalds’ attorney Todd Allen said. “Most recently, you have accused Mr. Donalds of supporting or voting for President Barack Obama. You have no evidence to support this allegation.”
Donalds’ campaign sent the letter via certified mail on Friday.
But Askar’s campaign scoffed, standing by their assertions Donalds only recently embraced Republican values.
“Your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack than to rebut it,” writes Askar counsel Chris Gober.
The letter from Donalds’ campaign was prompted by a video Askar released on July 23.
That in itself was a response to a negative ad from Club for Growth labeling Askar a Mitt Romney Republican. Club For Growth’s political arm endorsed Donalds among the nine Republicans running for the open Congressional seat.
“Back then, Byron Donalds was a Democrat supporting Barack Obama,” Askar says. Type on screen makes clear that “in 2008, Byron Donalds was a Democrat.”
The Collier County Supervisor of Elections confirmed the written part at least. Donalds was registered in the county as a Democrat from April 2003 to March 2010.
Another ad on heavy rotation on Southwest Florida airwaves repeats the claim that Donalds supported Obama for President.
But Askar’s team said there’s no evidence Donalds actually backed Obama. In fact, his social media activity indicates otherwise.
“It is clear that your campaign has closely examined Mr. Donalds’ Facebook page, as you have used it in the past to smear Mr. Donalds,” he said, apparently alluding to ads from Honesty America calling Donalds a “Never Trumper.” Those ads were based on criticisms he leveled against now-President Donald Trump in a Facebook conversation with his sister years before Trump’s full entry into politics.”
“However, it appears you deliberately chose to ignore several critical statements Mr. Donalds has made against President Obama.”
The ad then delineates statements dating back to February of 2009 attacking Obama for a budget that will raise taxes on gas and groceries. A month later he slammed Obama’s health care proposal, and a day later called a political appointment “the 5th tax cheat to be nominated.”
By March of 2009, he was calling Obama “anti-liberty” for funding stem-cell research, a process criticized by anti-abortion activists, and slamming Obama and Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd for accepting donations from AIG. In July that year, he called Obama’s health care plan a bait and switch.
The cease and desist letter suggests Askar’s campaign is knowingly libeling Donalds.
“It is clear that you knew the allegations were false,” the letter reads. “Your extensive review of Mr. Donalds’ Facebook page demonstrated that falsity. There is nothing you could have discerned from Mr. Donalds’ social media activity or his political activities that indicates that he actually did vote for or support President Barack Obama.”
The statements in the letter all date back to several months after Obama’s election as President in 2008.
Of course, Askar’s campaign noted that doesn’t in fact clear up who Donalds supported when Obama won office.
“If your intention to put my clients on notice that the statements that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack Obama is false, then I would expect you to make the unambiguous assertion that Mr. Donalds neither supported not voted for President Barack Obama,” Gober writes. “That assertion is glaringly absent from your letter, so your notice is insufficient to support a potential legal claim.”
The Askar camp letter notes Donalds not only voted in the 2008 election but cast a vote in the primary earlier that year. He also voted as a Democrat in 2006 when Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won reelection and Democrats took the Senate, and in the 2004 presidential election, so it’s not like Donalds wasn’t participating in politics at all.
Donalds notes that he voted in the state primary in 2008, largely because of school board races that year, but not the presidential preference primary in March.
Regardless, he said his vote for President that year, regardless of his party registration, went to Republican John McCain over Obama.
“My mother called me in September, 2008, basically talking about how excited she was to vote for Obama,” Donalds recalls. “I told her I couldn’t vote for him because I didn’t agree with him. She was apoplectic. But I told her she always told me to =look at things logically and make my decisions as a man. That’s what I did.”
Donalds first ran for Congress in the 19th Congressional District in 2012, losing then to Rep. Trey Radel in the Republican primary.
Notably, the Askar ad was done in response to criticism of his support for Romney in 2012. The Honesty America ad deep-diving Donalds’ social media also criticizes the politician for backing Romney the same year.
That anti-Donalds ad also raises a 1997 misdemeanor marijuana arrest and a 2000 bribery arrest.
None of those items are mentioned in the cease-and-desist letter. But the document does mention Askar’s own willingness to accuse political critics of slanderous statements.
“No one understand the impact of a defamatory statement more than you,” the letter states. “You claim to live by a code that values truth, integrity and honor. That is why you filed a lawsuit against Andrew Duskin, who accused you of not having a college degree despite your representation that you did. You filed the lawsuit to protect yourself from misguided and unfounded attempts to assassinate your character. We applaud you for taking a stand against false statements.”
“However, the purpose of this letter is to demand that you hold yourself to the same standard and retract the statements you made against Mr. Donalds. There are plenty of ways you can advocate for your campaign without resorting to clearly false statements.”