Campaign Finance Expert Says Kid Rock's Senate Campaign Was Real Deal, Even If He Didn't Mean It

It's official: Kid Rock is not running for Senate in Michigan. The "Bawitdaba" rapper admitted as much on Tuesday morning (Oct. 24) during an appearance on Howard Stern's SiriusXM satellite radio show, revealing that the months-long tease was really just a lark to help promote his new album, Sweet Southern Sugar.

Rock's "fuck no" denunciation of his intention to take on Democrat Debbie Stabenow made it crystal clear that the Michigan native rocker born Robert Ritchie was only pretending he had an interest in higher office because, well, he thought it was fun.

Here's the thing, though: According to one election expert Rock was, technically, actually running for office -- and his declaration on Tuesday was more of a "dropping out" statement than a jig-is-up one. Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer and vice president of policy & litigation at the good government group Common Cause -- which filed a complaint against Rock in September, claiming he was breaking federal campaign finance laws by not officially announcing his candidacy -- tells Billboard that Rock can tell anyone he wants that the bid was a goof, but legally it was no joke.

"That doesn't mean our action will go away. He's not forgiven for his campaign finance violation simply because he dropped out of the race," Ryan says of Tuesday's announcement. "Our view is Kid Rock became a federal candidate earlier this year. Someone who is already something can’t announce they’re not that thing." 

Common Cause filed its complaint based on what the group called the rocker's failure to comply with the regulations that govern being a candidate, which include a Federal Election Commission rule that an FEC spokesperson tells Billboard mandates that a potential candidate file their official papers of candidacy within 15 days of crossing the threshold of $5,000 in contributions or $5,000 in expenditures. The FEC spokesperson was not able to discuss Rock's candidacy or Common Cause's action any further, due to the ongoing nature of the complaint; Rock angrily responded to the Common Cause complaint in September.

Ryan does not have explicit evidence that Rock raised or spent that amount since campaign swag appeared on his kidrockforsenate site July; his name was reportedly first floated at a Michigan Republican Party convention in February. The campaign merch site, which is still live, features shirts, hats, yard signs and bumper stickers with the phrase "Kid Rock For U.S. Senate." A spokesperson for Rock could not be reached for comment on how much swag the site sold over the past four months.

"There's no rule against pretending to run [for office] to promote a commercial interest... People run for office for all sorts of reasons and the law allows that. But just because you became a candidate for the sake of promoting your own business doesn't mean you aren't a candidate," Ryan says. "I don't care about his motivation. But someone who has done the thing that under the law makes them a candidate doesn't get a pass on federal election law because they're doing it for business purposes."

As an example, Ryan pointed to late night host Stephen Colbert's sham 2008 presidential bid, in which the comedian cleverly skirted around the FEC rules by running for both the Republican and Democratic party nominations for president in just his home state of South Carolina, which is not a thing.

Rock seemed to make it clear that he was running for real (or not) back in July when he wrote on his website, "it's not a hoax, it's a strategy and marketing 101!" after his initial potential political bid was met with skepticism. At the time, he repeated the FEC's rule that he had 15 days from his announcement to file paperwork in a statement in which -- not for nothing -- he plugged his new label deal and his upcoming album. By August, the Senate Leadership Fund PAC issued a statement encouraging Rock to run while a RealClearPolitics poll had him trailing Stabenow by a slim 8 points.

Top campaign finance and elections lawyer Jan. W. Baran, a partner at the Washington, D.C. powerhouse firm Wiley Rein, tells Billboard that there is a difference between what's called "testing the waters" of candidacy and being an official candidate. The bottom line, according to Baran, is that it's likely no one really believed Rock intended to mount a serious campaign. Despite that obviousness, during his Stern appearance, Rock did claim to have gotten endorsements from former Trump right-hand man Steve Bannon, "the White House" and, Stern noted, former N.Y. Gov. George Pataki, among other Republican party members. 

Both the FEC and Ryan said the Common Cause complaint could take several years to wind its way through the system, given that some similar complaints from 2014 and 2016 election cycles are still ongoing. "It's part of show business to confuse entertainment with reality," Baran says. "People can be regulated by a lot of stupid laws, even without knowing they're regulated by them."

Ryan says that the FEC guidance on the issue of when someone becomes a candidate falls into three categories: 1) a non-candidate, non-tester of waters. 2) a person who is raising and spending money to explore a possible candidacy, a "tester of waters," who doesn't have to officially file with the FEC, but can only spend and raise candidate-permissible funds for that activity. 3) a candidate.

"Kid Rock, in my view, did everything under well-established finance laws to make him a candidate, such as the textbook example of when someone refers to themselves as 'Smith for Senate,' or in this case 'Kid Rock for Senate,'" says Ryan. "When you're selling yard signs, t-shirts and bumper stickers, the FEC has said you're doing things that make you a candidate, so you can't deny you're a candidate."