Kamala Harris props up Virginia candidate with ad played at churches, as conservatives decry ‘illegal’ trick

Vice President Kamala Harris is trying to help get Terry McAuliffe elected governor of Virginia with an ad being shown at churches, a possible violation of IRS rules banning tax-exempt organizations from political campaigning.

The Harris endorsement ad for McAuliffe, a long-time Hillary Clinton confidant, will reportedly be played at more than 300 predominantly black churches across Virginia. The screenings began on Sunday and were set to run through the final church services before the November 2 election. 

“I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” Harris said in the video. “Terry McAuliffe has a long track record of getting things done for the people of Virginia.”

The vice president began the ad by apparently trying to relate to churchgoers, speaking of her childhood years as a choir member at a church in Oakland, California. “We were taught that it’s our sacred responsibility to raise our voice and lift up the voices of our community,” she said, adding that voting is one of the ways to do that.

The Democratic Party’s Virginia campaign blitz – which also includes pitches by President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden and former President Barack Obama – comes as McAuliffe tries to energize supporters in his tight race with Republican Glenn Youngkin, who has been endorsed by ex-President Donald Trump.

While Harris is free to endorse whom she wants, the distribution of her ad could jeopardize the non-profit status of the participating churches. The US has prohibited charities and churches from participating in political campaigns for more than five decades. According to IRS rules, churches cannot “participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” 

Republicans were quick to point out the apparent violation. “Maybe one of the new 78,000 IRS agents should look into this instead of worrying if I buy a new couch,” one Twitter user said. Conservative activist Benny Johnson put it more bluntly, saying, “This is illegal.” 

The controversy over the vice president’s ad comes on the heels of Biden press secretary Jen Psaki being accused of breaking the law by promoting McAuliffe’s candidacy from her White House podium on Thursday. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a complaint against Psaki, alleging that she violated the Hatch Act by endorsing McAuliffe in her official capacity as White House press secretary. 

The Hatch Act prohibits federal government employees from using their official titles or positions while engaged in political activity. Such banned conduct would include any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or candidate. Psaki said in Thursday’s press briefing that, “We’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”

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McAuliffe, who was governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018, is no stranger to scandals. He allegedly steered about $675,000 in campaign contributions to the wife of Andrew McCabe, the then-FBI official who led the federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails. 

The 64-year-old New York native was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign and co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. He was reportedly targeted in an FBI investigation of allegedly illegal contributions to his 2013 gubernatorial campaign, including $120,000 from a Chinese businessman who was a former delegate to China’s National People’s Congress. 

McAuliffe also came under fire after doing fundraising in 2019 for a Virginia Senate candidate who had been convicted four years earlier of having sex with an underage girl. More recently, he said in a debate last month that he wouldn’t allow parents to tell schools what to teach their children – clearly fighting words for many voters at a time when school board meetings have been packed with angry parents demanding curriculum changes.

The statement likely helped Youngkin, who pulled ahead of McAuliffe for the first time in a Trafalgar Group poll. The latest Trafalgar survey, done last week, showed Youngkin in the lead at 48.4% to McAuliffe’s 47.5%. Only 19.9% of respondents said they strongly agreed with the Democrat’s comment on parental involvement in schools, while 45.7% strongly disagreed.

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