Matt Reel is running for Congress. But he can’t campaign until June — two months before Tennessee’s August primary.
Even if his staff knew where he is — which they don’t — and even if he had time while overseas, Reel can’t legally communicate with them about campaign strategy for his 7th District race while he’s on active duty.
It’s not unheard-of for candidates and members of Congress to step away from campaign or official responsibilities for reserve duty or training for a weekend or a few weeks. (The Constitution forbids active-duty military members from serving in Congress.)
But strategists on both sides of the aisle were hard-pressed to think of other examples of candidates facing overseas deployment that takes them away from the campaign for an extended period of time. Reel finds himself in the unusual situation of trying to mount a campaign while legally unable to contribute to that effort.
That means his family and friends, including his old boss, former 4th District Rep. Lincoln Davis, are running his campaign and raising money for him. Through his connections to the Blue Dog Coalition, he’s got a group of experienced Washington, D.C., consultants working for him, too.
As long as these surrogates — not Reel — are calling the shots, Reel’s campaign for the open seat can go on while he’s on active duty.
“I was going into this thinking, ‘How is this going to work?’” said media consultant Peter Cari, who is working for the campaign. “It’s a lot more seamless than I would have anticipated. Candidates aren’t everywhere all the time, especially in these big rural districts. It’s just a more extreme version of a normal surrogate program.”
What’s confusing, however, is that the lines between a candidate and a campaign run in his name can sometimes appear blurry.
Watch: Fundraising Reports Say a Lot About a Campaign
A fine line
Reel announced his campaign for the open 7th District seat in mid-December. He knew he was going to be deployed this year. He volunteered for it.
He most recently worked as deputy staff director for the Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Before that, he’d been deputy chief of staff to Alabama Democratic Rep. Terri A. Sewell — the same position he held when he worked for Davis, who lost re-election in 2010. Reel would spend his weekdays in Washington, D.C., and commute home to Tennessee on the weekends.
The district’s current representative, Republican Marsha Blackburn, announced her campaign for Senate in early October. Reel started meeting with consultants about running late last fall. In addition to Cari, Duane Baughman is handling mail and Justin Davey is doing fundraising consulting.
“We spent many hours going through his vision, the types of positions he wanted to take. We were all very clear on what he wanted his message to be,” said Kristen Hawn, who’s handling communications for the campaign. Reel also spoke with Defense Department and Federal Election Commission officials before he left.
He reported for duty days after the campaign launch, at which point, he had to stop doing anything related to the race. Just after the new year, he was deployed overseas.
A 2008 DOD directive lays out what active-duty members of the military can and cannot do when seeking political office. They cannot fundraise or solicit votes. They’re also prohibiting from participating in all “behind-the-scenes activities.”
Active-duty members may not “publish or allow to be published partisan political articles, literature or documents they have signed, written, or approved that solicit votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, issue, or cause,” the directive states.
That’s why Reel’s media team wrote a script and shot video material, printed mail and got the campaign’s social media and website up before he left.
The directive also says active-duty military members must “take all reasonable efforts to prevent current or anticipated advertisements that they (the nominees or candidates) control from being publicly displayed or running in any media.”
The directive specifies that this includes campaign websites. If they’re created before the candidate goes on active duty, they cannot be updated or revised.
The operative phrasing here is “that they (the nominees or candidates) control.” According to Reel’s team, his campaign website and social media can be updated while he’s away because it’s not under his control. His surrogates are doing it for him.
For example, on Jan. 22, his campaign tweeted Reel’s announcement video, writing, “I’m running for congress, because it’s time we put what’s best for our country over partisan politics.”
Reel couldn’t have tweeted that himself. His Twitter bio, which includes the notation “maintained by campaign,” is the only indication that the tweet didn’t actually come from him. Most of his social media updates are crafted in the third person.
Plenty of members and candidates who are in the reserves have had active-duty training in the U.S.
When running for Senate in 2016, former Nevada Rep. Joe Heck had to step away from the campaign trail for training.
Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, serves in the National Guard and can’t undertake NRCC or official duties when he’s training or deployed on active duty.
Army veteran Dan Helmer is running for the Democratic nomination to take on GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th District. When he had to report for annual training for the Army Reserve last month, he tweeted to let his followers know he’d be absent and included a link to his campaign fundraising page.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Matt Gabler, who’s a captain in the state’s Army National Guard, received authorization from the Pentagon last month to run for re-election while deployed overseas. Under the DOD directive, anyone “under a call or order to active duty for more than 270 days” must receive permission to be a candidate. Gabler’s family and friends will be running his campaign while he’s gone.
The right fit?
In a district as conservative as Tennessee’s 7th, Reel’s greatest advantage might also be his biggest challenge: He’s deployed with the Special Forces for the next four to five months.
Reel’s campaign website states that “Matt has served over 15 years in the Army National Guard and currently serves in an operational reserve unit of the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), U.S. Special Operations Command.”
In his introductory video, Reel talks about working on his family’s farm, going to church, playing football and enlisting in the military. His Twitter bio identifies him as a Christian, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a former Austin Peay football player.
The word Democrat doesn’t appear anywhere.
“The current leadership on both sides of the aisle is failing us,” Reel says in the video, as images of Ryan and Pelosi flash on screen. “Both Democrats and Republicans have played partisan games instead of fixing health care.”
Democrat Justin Kanew, a former “Amazing Race” contestant, is also running in the Aug. 2 primary. He ended 2017 with $104,000 in the bank. Reel ended the year with $33,000. He’s loaned his campaign $20,000.
If he wins the primary, Reel could face Republican state Sen. Mark Green, a retired Army flight surgeon, who had $581,000 on hand at the end of 2017.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added to its target list a handful of districts that Trump carried by high double-digit margins. Tennessee’s 7th is not one of them.
Davis is co-chairing Reel’s campaign and is a top surrogate for him on the campaign and fundraising circuit. He thinks Reel is the right kind of Democrat to win in this district.
“He probably would differ from the national Democratic Party on abortion. But he’s not going to make it an issue,” Davis said. The former congressman expects Reel to embrace the Democratic messaging on Social Security, Medicaid and taxes.
“I love the boy too much to have him run for something that he just can’t win,” Davis said. “I think he can win, and I think perhaps he will win.”