Republican campaign officials are calling foul on “three-pack” advertisements targeting Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley‘s Republican opponent, Corey Simon, including accusations the ads run afoul of campaign finance law and that one ad employs racially insensitive imagery.
In a complaint filed Wednesday with the Florida Elections Commission, Leon County Republican Party Chairman and Florida Republican Party Chairman of Chairs Evan Power accused the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee of failing to meet disclosure requirements with at least four mail ads and additional TV ads targeting Simon, effectively violating campaign finance law.
Disclaimers on the ads indicate the committee endorses Ausley, Sen. Janet Cruz and Senate District 38 candidate Janelle Perez, but the ads don’t mention approval from the three Democrats.
“None of the political advertisements contain the approval of the three referenced candidates,” Power wrote in his complaint. “Nor do the advertisements contain a disclosure that each political advertisement is an independent expenditure. Obviously, any such claim would be absurd.”
By not explicitly stating a candidate’s approval, state law might treat the advertisements as in-kind donations. If the ads are deemed in-kind contributions, they would exceed the in-kind limits in state law.
However, the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a campaign arm run by Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, told Florida Politics that state election officials have approved the advertisements’ fine print.
“The disclaimer used had been previously reviewed and approved for use in the past by the Florida Division of Elections,” said Claire VanSusteren, the committee’s spokesperson.
“The Republican Party is trying to hide their dangerous record that hurts Florida families by engaging in gotcha moments. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has written approvals from respective candidates and the appropriate disclaimer has been deployed.”
Three-packs allow state party operations to run ads that technically support three candidates, but functionally support only one. Meanwhile, the party gets to skirt contribution limits and pay at the nonprofit rate.
A 2010 grand jury report blasted three-packs as “deceptive” advertising and encouraged lawmakers to ban the practice. However, such advertisements remain a staple of Florida campaign politics.
Accountant Nancy Watkins — who has been the campaign treasurer for hundreds of local and national Republicans for more than 30 years, including Gov. Ron DeSantis — told Florida Politics that as long as the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee met the standards of a three-pack ad, including obtaining candidate approvals, omitting the approval from the ad could amount to a technical violation.
Also at issue is the advertisements’ content. Among the mailers is one containing cutouts of children backed by targets with bullet holes.
“Don’t let extremists like Corey Simon turn our schools into shooting ranges,” the ad reads.
On the flip side, the ad shows a picture of Simon on a target stand.
According to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, Black faces or live Black targets were popular in carnival games during the late 19th century.
In particular, Republicans appear to have taken issue with the advertisement because of the “dangerous history of using images of Black men for target practice in this country,” as characterized by the Simon campaign’s spokesperson, Erin Isaac. The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had used the disclaimer language for months, but it wasn’t until the gun safety ad ran that Power filed a complaint.
Power and the Simon campaign asked Ausley to apologize for the imagery.
“You can’t just be an ally when it’s convenient, Loranne,” Isaac said in a statement. “It helps if you do the right thing, even when it doesn’t serve your needs.”
The ad labels Simon, a former Florida State football star well-liked by Seminole fans, as an “extremist” because of his endorsement from DeSantis. DeSantis has repeatedly stated his intention to sign a permitless carry law before he leaves office, which would remove the need for Floridians to acquire a permit to carry a handgun.
The ad also highlights a portion of a tweet Simon posted in March 2018, the month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 people died. The shooter used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, sparking discussion at the time over whether to ban similar weapons.
“Yes, AR are hunting rifles. They also account for less than 1% of all mass shootings. Just because you say no brainer or facts don’t make it so,” Simon tweeted.
Simon’s campaign website doesn’t include a platform but mentions his support for “protecting individual freedoms and constitutional rights.” However, the Simon campaign told Florida Politics he supports the Guardian Program and having school resource officers on campus to protect children.
“To suggest Corey would do anything but protect our children when he has spent his entire adult life doing just that is politics at its worst,” Isaac said.
The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee called the technical complaints and complaints about the imagery a distraction from the campaign.
“The Florida Republican Legislative Campaign Committee is clearly attempting to divert attention from their own racist policies that erase Black history from our classrooms and take away our rights,” VanSusteren said.
“Corey Simon should stop deflecting and plainly say if he agrees with how North Florida schools are literally removing Black leaders from classroom displays and taking Black authors out of school libraries — if he agrees with the GOP disenfranchisement of Black voters in North Florida — with their fight for full open carry on school grounds — or with Republicans taking away abortion rights for victims of rape, incest and human trafficking.”
Ausley did not return Florida Politics’ request for comment. However, Ausley and Simon are set to square off in their first debate Monday.
Simon is a former Florida State University and National Football League football player and former CEO of Volunteer Florida who is in his first campaign for office. Ausley served in the House from 2000 to 2008 and 2016 to 2020 and was elected to the Senate in 2020. Both live in Tallahassee.