Ted Cruz’s Senate re-election campaign has been sending voters in Texas a fund-raising letter in an envelope labeled “summons enclosed,” drawing criticism from some who called it misleading and raising questions about whether such a practice was legal. It is.
That is according to Myles Martin, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, who said the salient question was whether a mailing contains a disclaimer saying that it came from a political campaign. And this one did.
Aside from that, he said in an email, “the F.E.C.’s regulations don’t speak to how candidates may choose to word particular solicitations to potential contributors.”
Mr. Cruz is locked in an unexpectedly tight race against Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, in a traditionally conservative state. Earlier this month, a top adviser to President Trump, Mick Mulvaney, the federal budget director, told a gathering of donors he believed it was possible Mr. Cruz might not win re-election because he is not “likable.”
A photo of one of the letters was posted to Twitter on Sunday by Sean Owen, a data scientist who said it arrived at his home in Austin, Tex., and was addressed to his grandmother, who lived there until she died in April.
“My grandmother was facing cognitive decline at the end of her life and I think if she’d read this she might have been deceived by it,” he said in a phone interview. “It feels shady.”
Confusion arises not just from the letter itself but from the envelope it arrives in.
The fund-raising appeal comes in an envelope with the words “SUMMONS ENCLOSED — OPEN IMMEDIATELY” written across it in large capital letters. In the upper left-hand corner are three lines of text: “Official Travis County Summons, Voter Enrollment Campaign Division, Ted Cruz for Senate 2018.”
And the return address? It says the “official summons” has come from Senator Ted Cruz.
The letter inside the envelope is more clearly part of a fund-raising effort. The Cruz campaign logo appears at the top of the letter and recipients are given the option to donate a preselected amount of money or to write in their own denominations.
The letter echoes its envelope, though, in its use of language — like “campaign summons” and “conservative affirmation” — that sounds more legal than colloquial.
How many of these letters have been sent out?
That is not clear. A spokeswoman for the Cruz campaign did not respond to messages seeking comment on Monday.
Since Saturday, Twitter users in two Texas counties — Travis County, where Austin is located, and Harris County, which is home to Houston — have posted pictures of the summons-like letters online.
But the campaign has been sending fund-raising appeals marked as summonses to voters since at least May, when The San Antonio News-Express took issue with the tactic in an editorial.
It called on the Cruz campaign to “rethink” the mailings and said recipients receiving them might, at first glance, believe they were being sued or ordered to appear in court. The mailings were labeled “Official Kerr County Summons,” after a county outside San Antonio.
In May, the Cruz campaign told The News-Express in a statement that it had sent “more than 50,000” of the fund-raising letters to “likely supporters” in the San Antonio area alone. It said the mailings were “both effective and critical to identifying and engaging our supporters.”
Mr. Martin, at the F.E.C., said he could not comment on whether anyone had complained about the mailers because “the Federal Election Campaign Act requires that matters before the commission be kept confidential until they are resolved.”
How effective are mailings like this?
The impact of eyebrow-raising campaign mailings can be difficult to gauge.
Mr. Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign had a reputation for engaging in dirty tricks. One of them was a letter he sent to Iowa voters before that state’s Republican caucuses — which Mr. Cruz won — notifying them of nonexistent “voting violations.”
The letter said the recipient had a record of voting infrequently, which is not a violation, and included the names of the recipient and their neighbors alongside a “score” based on their turnout record. It said they could improve their score by voting in the caucuses and warned that “a follow-up notice may be issued” after the caucuses were finished.
That kind of social pressure can be effective in boosting turnout, according to an influential 2008 study by the political scientists Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green and Christopher W. Larimer.
They said mailings like the one Mr. Cruz sent in 2016 are “an order of magnitude more effective” than other political mailings because they threaten to publicly shame people for not voting. But the fund-raising letter sent by the Cruz campaign in recent weeks does not do that.