Kenneth Pennington, a top digital strategist for Beto O’Rourke, had a simple plan.
Mr. O’Rourke would announce his bid for governor of Texas early on a recent Monday morning and then Mr. Pennington would break the news via email to Mr. O’Rourke’s lucrative list of supporters, a loyal following that had already raised tens of millions of dollars for Mr. O’Rourke in his past bids for the Senate and the White House.
But Mr. Pennington soon noticed something troubling: a parallel wave of look-alike emails from groups completely unaffiliated with the O’Rourke campaign that were designed to capitalize on the Texas Democrat’s moment and popularity. The emails used subject lines, sender names and URLs embedded with phrases like “team Beto” and “official Beto.” And in most cases, none of the money these emails eventually raised went directly to the campaign.
Mr. O’Rourke still brought in more than $2 million from 31,000 donors, the largest 24-hour sum that any new candidate has announced this year, his campaign said. But for Mr. Pennington and the rest of the campaign, the nagging question was how much more they might have hauled in if other Democratic groups hadn’t been so busy siphoning off their share.
“The frustrating thing,” Mr. Pennington said, “is we will never know how much we lost.”
Welcome to the sometimes-sketchy world of online campaign fund-raising, where misdirection and misleading everyday Americans — often older Americans — to maximize clicks and cash is increasingly a dark art form.
Imitating others and mimicking official correspondence with postage-paid mailers is an age-old trick that marketers have used since long before the internet. The tactic has been adapted and updated for the digital era — and appears to be accelerating in prevalence in the political sphere.
At stake can be millions of dollars in an era when mass online political donating is in vogue in both parties. Copycatting Mr. O’Rourke’s brand surged in popularity recently, but on the Republican side, mimicking the brand of former President Donald J. Trump has been common for months.
In some cases, established organizations are simply capitalizing on the day’s big news or the politician of the moment to gin up excitement among their own supporters with some verbal sleight-of-hand. In others, political action committees with anodyne names are raising funds in the name of a popular politician that they have no affiliation with at all. Mr. Pennington described such groups as “leeches” and “scam PACs.”
Where the money goes from there can be murky, though big payments to the operatives and consulting firms that operate those PACs have drawn increasing scrutiny from political colleagues, regulators and law enforcement alike.
Some of these operations are legal, sometimes burying the requisite disclaimers in the fine print. Others may not be. This month, the Justice Department charged three political operatives with running a scheme that prosecutors said defrauded small donors of $3.5 million.
“I am not at all surprised that unscrupulous actors are essentially impersonating popular Democratic campaigns to try to raise money,” said Josh Nelson, a Democratic digital strategist who runs a firm, The Juggernaut Project, focused on growing email lists more ethically. “That’s the unfortunate trend we’ve seen.”
Mr. Nelson has been publicly pressuring progressives to abandon more deceptive fund-raising tactics, and has asked the leading Democratic technology companies to intervene because new laws are unlikely to stiffen penalties for deception anytime soon.
“Ultimately, I think it is going to take technology vendors cracking down on these tactics,” Mr. Nelson said.
For now, there seems to be little that the most aggressive politicians and PACs in both parties won’t say to raise more money from online supporters.
“Your covid test result,” read the alarming subject line of a fund-raising email from the campaign arm of House conservatives the day before Mr. O’Rourke entered the governor’s race. (The email was about mobilizing opposition to a Covid-19 vaccine mandate.)
A new favorite tactic of the Republican National Committee has been making it appear as if supporters have urgent and overdue bills. “WARNING: Payment Incomplete” has been the sender line of more than 15 party emails since August, including one just before Thanksgiving. (A warning this week was about membership status as “Trump Social Media Founding Supporter.”)
The day after Mr. O’Rourke’s announcement, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, sent an email to supporters who had not ordered anything, using “Your Order Confirmation” as the sender and “Order ID: 73G526S” as the subject line. (The email was an effort to sell “Let’s Go Brandon” wrapping paper, which references a popular conservative phrase that has become a stand-in for an insult aimed at President Biden.)
The House Conservatives Fund, the Republican National Committee and Mr. Abbott’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of these examples may seem like easily detectable and even harmless deceptions. But strategists in both parties say a huge share of online cash is raised from older Americans who are less adroit online and have a harder time separating fact from hyperbole. The reason that so-called Nigerian prince scams exist, after all, is because people fall for them.
When Mr. O’Rourke ran for Senate in 2018, he shattered Democratic fund-raising records, and his entry into the 2022 governor’s race has been highly anticipated. His campaign team held discussions before the announcement about how to limit the funds that less scrupulous actors might try to cannibalize.
And outside groups did pounce almost immediately.
“Official: Beto is in!!” came one such message the morning his run was announced. It listed its sender as “Team Beto (BSP).”
The “BSP” stood for Blue South PAC, a new political action committee that sprung up this year and was among the more aggressive imitators of Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign. The group sent no less than five emails from a sender that included the phrase “Team Beto” in the campaign’s first three days.
“At the very least, they’re trying to trick people into opening the email as if it’s from the campaign,” Mr. Pennington said, adding that he raced to send out the campaign’s first fund-raising message sooner than planned when he saw others already arriving.
In one solicitation, the link to the Blue South PAC donation page on ActBlue, the Democratic digital donation-processing site, was highlighted in bright yellow and appeared as if it belonged to the campaign: actblue.com/donate/team-beto.
Those who clicked were greeted by a message: “Show your support by donating and joining Team Beto!” Except 100 percent of the funds went to the Blue South PAC, according to the fine print on the donation page.
A related group, Defeat Republicans, deployed a nearly identical email, featuring a similar URL highlighted in yellow: actblue.com/donate/official-beto.
Both groups are linked to the same digital strategist, Zach Schreiber, who emailed a statement on behalf of both Blue South PAC and Defeat Republicans saying that their digital strategy was “in line with the industry best practices.”
“Our community looks to us for news, action alerts, and opportunities to help elect Democrats,” the statement said, adding that the PACs “look forward to working with the Beto campaign.”
Founded in the summer of 2020, Defeat Republicans raised almost $1 million in less than a year through the end of June 2021. In that time, federal records show it paid Mr. Schreiber $133,000 and directed another $208,000 to a firm, Opt-In Strategies, that lists him as a consultant on its website. Blue South PAC had spent only about $37,000 through the end of June, with more than one-third of the spending going to another consulting firm, UpWave Digital Solutions, founded by Mr. Schreiber.
Federal records show that Defeat Republicans has given more than $400,000 to Democratic campaigns. The biggest chunk, $230,000, went to Jennifer Carroll Foy, who ran for governor of Virginia as a Democrat; Ms. Foy’s campaign paid Opt-In Strategies $67,500 for “list acquisition,” state records show. The PACs also said it had contributed $5,000 to Mr. O’Rourke.
Plenty of other groups with missions that bear little relation to Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign seized on his entry into the race. These PACs have no formal affiliation with Mr. O’Rourke, even as they cite his campaign in fund-raising, and have no obligation to spend any of what they collect to help him.
One PAC, The Majority Rules, ostensibly devoted to ending partisan gerrymandering, wrote an email to its list on Mr. O’Rourke’s first day that read, “The first 24 hours after a campaign announces are critical to its success. We still need another 103 grassroots Democrats to step up before midnight to give Beto the momentum he needs.”
All the funds went to the PAC.
Another PAC, 314 Action, devoted to electing scientists, sent an email with the subject line “BREAKING: Beto is running for Texas governor” the day he entered the race. The funds went to the PAC.
The sender line in that email displayed as “Beto O’Rourke Update” — a format that industry insiders say can make it appear, at a glance, as if the politicians themselves sent the missive. (Directly using a politician’s name alone without consent is generally not allowed because it is seen as writing directly in his or her voice without authorization.)
A nonprofit arm of 314 Action has announced it will spend up to $500,000 this year targeting four Republican governors, including Mr. Abbott of Texas. Joshua Morrow, the executive director of the 314 Action groups, did not respond to questions about the group’s fund-raising tactics but said in a statement that Mr. Abbott is “at the top of the list” of “anti-science politicians” they will target into 2022.
314 Action uses other techniques to lure potential supporters, including sending three emails so far this month from “BREAKING from NBC News.” Another set of 314 Action emails used “NBC News Alert” in the sender line in September.
Mr. Nelson, the Democratic digital strategist pressing his industry to curb such tactics, said groups keep doing it because it works — at least in the short term. But he worries that over time bad actors could poison the well for the whole party if donors stop trusting political groups with their money.
“Ultimately there is a real risk that we’re going to push donors away,” he said.