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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Influencer running for U.S. Senate challenges campaign finance rules

Caroline Gleich, the Utah Democrat vying to replace retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R), is asking the Federal Election Commission to update its rules for the age of the online influencer.

On Wednesday, Gleich, a professional ski mountaineer and online content creator, filed a request seeking permission to sidestep campaign finance rules that she says disadvantage influencers who make a living generating sponsored posts on social media.

Under current FEC rules, any sponsored social post that features Gleich and is distributed in Utah within 90 days of the Nov. 5 election could be considered a “coordinated communication.” As such, it would count as an in-kind political contribution and have to be listed in her campaign finance reports. Gleich is asking the FEC to agree that sponsored posts are “business communications” and therefore exempt from the rule.

Gleich, who appears to be the first full-time content creator to run for Congress, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the rules have already disrupted some of her sponsorships. One brand pulled out of a deal because of the complexities of booking an ad campaign with someone running for office, Gleich said, adding that negotiating new deals also has become more difficult.

“I have two other brands that I’ve been working with for years that are both very strongly thinking about canceling their contracts because of the general uncertainty,” she said.


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The FEC declined to comment on Gleich’s request. But campaign finance experts acknowledged that some rules may not be suited to the influencer era.

“These rules were written when social media was in its infancy,” said Daniel Weiner, director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. “So in innumerable instances, they just don’t take into account the whole concept of a social media influencer.”

FEC rules can also require companies that mention federal candidates in advertisements to disclose them as electioneering communications, he said.

Although content creators play a growing role in politics and are part of an industry set to be worth nearly half a trillion dollars annually by 2027, according to Goldman Sachs, the federal government collects little data on the sector. Millions work as professional influencers, but federal labor statistics offer no reliable measurements for the creator industry, even as the Census Bureau’s industry index tracks hyper-specific jobs such as “canary raiser,” “magician helper” and “roller skate repairer.”

Gleich says the United States needs more influencers to run for federal office because they could deliver a much-needed boost to Capitol Hill’s tech savvy. “People who understand social media will make extremely powerful elected officials,” she said ahead of the filing. “Content creators know firsthand the impacts of troll farms, algorithms and the threats to American democracy.”

Gleich’s filing also asked the FEC to let her use a different method to calculate the replacement salary candidates are allowed to draw from campaign funds, arguing that the traditional method fails to accommodate people with irregular income.

Gleich is not the first candidate to complain that the coordinated-communications rule makes it hard to sustain their livelihood. In 2012, Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican then seeking a seat in the U.S. House, asked the FEC to exempt advertisements for his plumbing company. After the FEC failed to reach a consensus, Mullin pulled the advertising. He won the House race and now serves in the Senate.

It is unclear whether the commission will see that past case as supportive of Gleich’s request or not. “I certainly don’t think there would necessarily be a principled reason to single out an influencer and treat her differently than the owner of a car dealership, for instance, who appears in his ads selling cars,” Weiner said. However, because Gleich is doing advertisements on behalf of other brands and businesses, not her own, the analogy is imperfect.

Ben Anderson, Gleich’s deputy campaign manager, said the FEC’s decision could help encourage more people making a living on the internet to run for federal office. Jake Paul, a YouTube influencer and professional boxer, has said that he plans to run for president one day. And just last week, the biggest content creator on YouTube, MrBeast, 26, said he would run for president if the age limit were lowered — a tall order, given that the requirement that the president be at least 35 years old is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Gleich’s FEC challenge is “about opening doors for different kinds of people from different backgrounds,” Anderson said. “As content creators become a bigger thing in politics and culture, I think it’s going to be really important to have rules that reflect that and don’t lock people out with those kinds of backgrounds and careers.”

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