Google the name “Danny Tarkanian,” and if you’re in Nevada, odds are the first result won’t be a campaign website, news article or biography of the U.S. Senate candidate.
Instead, it will probably be a link to a website called DannyTarkanianNews.com, a website filled with articles detailing various alleged conservative and business failings by Tarkanian, links to Twitter and Facebook accounts called “NV Senate Updates” and most of the regular trappings of a standard news website, including “Trending” and “Most Recent” columns.
Scroll to the bottom, however, and the site’s funding is clear — it’s paid for by Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s campaign.
The site, which was created on Sept. 15 according to a WHOIS domain search, is not only the Heller campaign’s first serious campaign foray against primary foe Tarkanian, but the latest in a trend of candidates and political organizations blurring the lines between traditional political campaigns and online media.
Neither the Facebook nor Twitter accounts of the group disclose that it’s paid for by the campaign, and a video featured high up on the site attacking Tarkanian’s five electoral losses doesn’t disclose its funding source. The Twitter account links back to the main website, while the Facebook page lists itself as a “Media/News Company.”
The website itself is stuffed with “articles” that include a variety of standard attacks against Tarkanian — including his campaigning with brothel owner Dennis Hof, an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association in 2006, a successful lawsuit alleging legal malpractice against Tarkanian and a $17 million judgment entered against him related to a failed real estate deal in Southern California (Tarkanian settled the case in 2015 for little more than half a million dollars.)
The site was launched sometime in November and is still active — a post published Thursday compared Tarkanian to former Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who lost a high-profile race to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 2010.
A Heller campaign spokesman declined to comment, and the Tarkanian campaign brushed the site off as essentially propaganda.
“Pravda looked like a newspaper, too,” Tarkanian’s wife and campaign manager, Amy Tarkanian, said in an email.
Tarkanian's campaign also operates a similar site with articles and links called NeverHeller.com, though the campaign discloses its funding and has appeared in the campaign's press releases to the media.
Kyle Kondik, a national political analyst based with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the site reminded him of a similar news website set up by the Republican Governor’s Association last year — The Free Telegraph — to attack Democrats and to highlight the virtues of the nation’s 34 Republican governors. Kondik said campaigns often try to snatch domain names or create fake pages and boost them to the top of search engines.
“Sometimes campaigns will try to set up fake pages that attack an opponent if they can get a domain name before that opponent gets it,” Kondik said in an email. “I think it’s an increasingly common phenomenon.”
Other prominent politicians have launched similar websites that blur lines between news outlets and political operations. Allies of former Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie launched a website called The Republican Standard that promoted his candidacy and attacked Democrat Ralph Northam, and Vice President Mike Pence once mulled creating a state-run news outlet — Just IN — during his time as Indiana governor that would provide pre-written news stories to media outlets and sometimes break news from his administration.
Heller isn’t the only candidate to try to take advantage of Google searches to lead voters to less-than-flattering information about their opponent — state Treasurer Dan Schwartz has taken aim at fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt by purchasing Google Ads for an attack website called LaxaltForSale.com.