Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) used campaign donations to promote sales of his book on his official Facebook account, a move that experts say appears to violate a federal law that prohibits candidates from using campaign funds to enrich themselves personally.
In September and October of last year, Cruz’s campaign, Ted Cruz for Senate, paid for 17 ads on his official Facebook candidate page promoting retail sales of his book, One Vote Away: How A Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History. The sponsored posts, which Facebook catalogued in its political ads library, feature a video of Cruz telling viewers to purchase his book from third parties, and include links to landing pages on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. The copy on the Amazon links reads, “Buy my book.”
The Federal Election Commission bars candidates from using contributions to line their own pockets, such as by promoting items that generate private income, including publishing royalties. Experts in election law say that while both Republican and Democratic political committees frequently, and legally, offer books as “donor mementos” in exchange for donations, Cruz appears to have crossed the line by selling the books outright.
“This looks like exactly what you’re not supposed to do,” said Jenna Grande, press secretary for government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which over the last four years has filed 14 legal complaints about FEC violations.
Grande said that while the law is “not entirely clear” on the point, “it very much appears” that Cruz used campaign funds to promote commercial sales of his book. “Campaign committees can only be used to engage in bona fide campaign activities, not personal and commercial enterprises, and by explicitly telling his followers to ‘Buy my new book!’ and linking to bookseller pages for doing that, Cruz appears to have violated the campaign finance laws his campaign is bound to follow.”
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, noted that Cruz’s promotions would also seem to violate the FEC exception to the ban.
“In 2008 the FEC advised that using campaign funds to market a candidate’s book violates the ban on personal use. But in a 2006 advisory opinion, the FEC said that it was permissible for candidates to post links to their books on campaign websites, reasoning that there is basically no cost involved in throwing a link onto an existing page,” Fischer said, a nod to the FEC’s de minimis exemption.
In that opinion, the FEC permitted then-Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) to advertise his book on his campaign website. That level of promotional content was essentially free, and insignificant compared to “an otherwise substantial website,” the commissioners said.
The Cruz campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
Cruz paid Facebook about $5,000 to promote his book, reaping hundreds of thousands of impressions, which Fischer said would not fit within the bounds of the FEC’s exemption. Further, he said, the limited amount of publicly available information makes it impossible to tell whether the Texas conservative paid for spots on other platforms. While the two most dominant digital ad companies, Facebook and Google, allow the public to see the estimated costs and reach of political ads, not every platform provides that kind of transparency.
“We don’t know how extensive these personal use violations might be, because any similar ads run on websites other than Facebook or Google are not public,” Fischer said.
According to Cruz’s most recent financial disclosure, he struck a deal at some point in March 2020 with a new publisher, Regnery, who gave him a $400,000 advance, as well as 15 percent royalties on hardcover net sales and half that amount for paperbacks. The terms include a slightly reduced rate on discount sales, and 25 percent royalties on net proceeds for e-book sales. (Cruz claimed in one episode of his podcast, “Verdict,” that he decided to write the book during lockdowns in May.)
But Fischer also suggested Cruz may be using campaign funds “to game the system” so that his book lands on bestseller lists.
“Although candidates cannot receive royalties when buying books with campaign funds, campaign book purchases can certainly drive up book sales. There have long been allegations of politicians using campaign funds to juice their book sales numbers and land on bestseller lists,” he said.
He went on to note that some publications that have wised to this tactic now try to elide bulk orders from their rankings. Cruz himself has experience in this realm: In 2015, when his presidential campaign bought bulk orders of his memoir A Time for Truth directly from the publisher—without royalty income—The New York Times refused to list it as a bestseller, arguing that a sizable proportion of the sales came from “strategic bulk purchases.” HarperCollins said it could find “no evidence” to support the allegation, and pointed out that the book cracked the Top 10 in other national outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and Nielsen.
Cruz basked in the free publicity. His campaign demanded the Times apologize for the “blatant falsehood,” and a number of his affiliated Twitter accounts shared a Washington Post blog post headlined, “Ted Cruz hits the jackpot: A book war with the New York Times.”
“It’s been a good week and a half with wall-to-wall coverage of the book, and yes, this latest unfortunate news courtesy of the New York Times is a chance to get yet more attention and drive readers to Senator Cruz’s book,” Keith Urbahn, co-founder of the D.C.-based literary agency and PR firm Javelin, which represented Cruz, told Politico at the time. “This controversy is already helping sales.”
Last fall, the campaign dropped more than $153,000 at Books-A-Million and another $1,200 at Barnes & Noble, while his Facebook ads directed customers to both retailers.
The book was also promoted in December by one of then-President Trump’s joint fundraising committees—Trump Make America Great Again—which spent nearly $235,000 on a bulk order as part of a fundraising effort, The New York Times reported. However, the committee didn’t buy the books from a publisher, but from an obscure company called Reagan Investments LLC. The only other committee to ever pay that company is Jobs Freedom and Security, Cruz’s own leadership PAC, which spent about $1.2 million on “sponsorship advertising” in 2020—nearly 80 percent of its operating budget on the year.
Google’s ad library shows that Reagan Investments, which is registered to longtime Cruz strategist Jeff Roe, spent about $80,000 in 2020 to promote Cruz’s podcast. Most of that went to ads when he launched the show in late January, but the company also pumped the podcast around the time One Vote Away was released. Cruz’s payments to the company spiked around the same time, but Fischer noted that because the private company doesn’t have to report its purchases, it’s “hard to say” what the campaign paid Reagan Investments to do.
But the covert ad campaign pales in comparison to Cruz’s public promo efforts. He could not have foreseen his biggest opportunity, when the book’s release coincided with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leading to the nomination and confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The two-term senator leveraged the issue in dozens of appearances, even after Barrett’s confirmation, most of them in friendly outlets such as Fox News primetime and talk shows hosted by conservative personalities such as Buck Sexton, Hugh Hewitt and Seb Gorka. Still, nearly 80 of those videos are archived on his campaign’s official YouTube page, many of them featuring Cruz or a host asking people to buy the book from a reseller, and the vast majority with a background graphic advertising retail purchases.
In one Fox & Friends appearance last October, Cruz boasted that he had blasted big tech companies, including Facebook, “for years” about what he called their “censorship of conservatives, of conservative ideas.” Co-host Brian Kilmeade wrapped the interview saying, “Senator, thank you and congratulations on the book.”
“Thank you very much,” Cruz replied, adding: “And the book was #1 on the Amazon bestsellers, so go get it where you get books.”