As candidates make their final push before the midterm elections, you may start seeing more of them touting endorsements from celebrities or notable organizations.
That led VERIFY viewer Jack to wonder whether politicians might simply be paying those people to endorse them. Accusations of such payments have drawn controversy for candidates in the past.
Is it legal for federal political candidates to pay for endorsements?
Yes, it’s legal for federal candidates to pay for endorsements. But they need to follow public disclosure laws and report the payments.
WHAT WE FOUND
According to the Federal Election Commission, there is no law banning candidates from paying for endorsements.
A spokesperson told VERIFY, “No provisions in the FEC rules specifically address paid endorsements of federal candidates.”
Campaigns for state or local office are governed by the laws in those jurisdictions, not the FEC, and so may have different requirements depending on where they are.
Federal candidates are legally required to disclose all payments, including those made in exchange for endorsements. The Federal Election Campaign Act requires campaigns for federal office to file regular reports on where their money comes from and where it goes.
That report has to include the name and address of any “person to whom an expenditure… in excess of $200… is made… together with the date, amount, and purpose of such… expenditure.”
The FEC spokesperson confirmed, saying via email that campaigns “must provide a ‘purpose of disbursement’ that describes the nature of the transaction,” for any money disbursed.
So paying for an endorsement isn’t illegal, but trying to hide that payment could get a candidate in trouble.
A notable example of such trouble is former Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson. In 2012 he took money in exchange for endorsements for two Republican candidates for president, first Michelle Bachmann and then later Ron Paul, per court records.
Sorenson was charged with willfully causing false expenditure reports and obstruction of justice, and pleaded guilty and received a 15 month prison sentence. But it was for the coverup, not the payments themselves. He also ran aground of Iowa State Senate ethics rules that say sitting senators can’t take money from campaigns, but the candidates who paid him broke no laws.
Accusations of paying for endorsements can still be a source of controversy, even if the candidate is in the clear legally. In 2019, an Associated Press report revealed a campaign staffer for Democratic presidential candidate and billionaire Tom Steyer had offered local Iowa politicians money in exchange for their endorsements. There was no evidence anyone accepted, and Steyer denied attempting to purchase support, but faced widespread criticism for appearing to be trying to use his wealth to get into office. Steyer didn’t win any delegates in the Iowa caucuses; he dropped out of the race a few months later.