Jim Renacci may be pushing the limit on Congressional rules for Facebook advertising on the taxpayer dime.

Thanks to new accountability tools from Facebook, we noticed that Congressman Renacci, now running against Sherrod Brown for the US Senate, used up to $20,500 in taxpayer funds to buy Facebook ads that appear to be aimed at shoring up a vulnerability with voters.

Renacci, who has not been seen running digital ads on Facebook (or really anywhere) since the primary, suddenly turned on the juice in early August. The Congressman ran ads touting his support for the CHIP program while, in small letters, encouraging visitors to “sign up for updates” from his office.

Renacci’s first foray into Facebook ads that we know of was paid for by his Congressional office budget. It included three versions of the same ad, with a potential reach–by Facebook’s estimate–of 700,000 to 1.5 million voters at a cost of between $10,100 and $20,500. That makes it the largest ad buy in the entire Ohio congressional delegation in 2018. Others spending Congressional funds on Facebook ads include Reps. Beatty, Stivers, Kaptur, Joyce and Senator Portman. But Renacci’s buy, if it is closer to the upper end estimate, would exceed the largest Facebook ad purchase ($13,300) made by any member of congress in 2017, according to USA Today.

Before you say $20,000 doesn’t seem like a lot, consider the reach of Facebook advertising. According to Facebook’s own estimates, these ads could have been seen by up to 1.5 million people. That’s more than twice the population of the 16th district.

And that’s $20,000 in taxpayer funds.

While not prohibited, Members of Congress are permitted to run ads on Facebook, as long as they conform to some basic rules. Ads must be:

  • targeted to their Congressional District
  • focused on constituent service topics such as announcing a town hall, helping with a Social Security claim, or promoting ways to sign up for constituent emails
  • run no fewer than 90 days before a federal election

Renacci seems to be pushing–if not outright crossing–the line on two out of three.

looks like Renacci’s ads didn’t stay in the district (truncated photo)

The targeting on the ad reached Facebook users in dozens of other states outside Ohio. This suggests that rather than use Facebook’s built in targeting to show the ad only to people who live in the 16th Congressional district, the Congressman uploaded a custom list to do one-on-one targeting of Facebook users, perhaps from a constituent email list or, more illegally, a campaign fundraising list. We really don’t know but seeing states other than Ohio raises alarm bells.

The ad also plays up his “support” for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)–which he and other Congressional Republicans allowed to expire for over three months last year–in the process of linking to a page to sign up for emails from his office. Doing so by emphasizing his support for a specific program seems to be aimed more at shoring up a political vulnerability as a Senate candidate than to promote a mailing list.

Renacci’s ad ran the first week of August, concluding on the 7th. That was 91 days before the election, putting him just inside the window during which Members of Congress are prohibited from running ads.

Taxpayers should always be skeptical when their funds are spent to promote a candidate’s campaign for office. This case is no different.

 

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