A Florida Republican primary candidate and state party officials are condemning fake text messages and a YouTube video they say spread disinformation as voters headed to the polls Tuesday.
The texts, which included a message and video, falsely claimed that Byron Donalds, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives, had dropped out of the race for Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Text messages received from at least two numbers said, in part: “Hello folks, I’m Byron Donalds, and today I dropped out of Southwest Florida’s race for Congress.” They included a link to a YouTube video, which has since been taken down. It’s unclear how many people received the text messages.
“I did NOT drop out of the race,” Donalds tweeted Tuesday. “This illegal text sent to the whole district is absolutely FALSE and old edited footage from 2012!”
Donalds, who describes himself as a “Trump supporting, gun owning, liberty loving, pro-life, politically incorrect Black man,” is running for the seat left vacant after GOP Rep. Francis Rooney announced last year he would not seek reelection. Donalds was the top fundraiser among the GOP primary field as of July 29, but his campaign was heavily outspent by two opponents, Casey Askar and William Figlesthaler, who both poured significant personal resources into their campaigns.
Donalds campaign manager Shawn Frost on Tuesday accused “desperate opponents” who “lobbed a Hail Mary” of being behind the texts.
“This has all the hallmarks of a Jeff Roe production, who is Casey Askar’s consultant,” said Frost, without offering any evidence. “I say that because in 2016 in the Iowa caucuses, there was a rumor put out that Ben Carson had dropped from the campaign by Ted Cruz’s consultant. Ted Cruz’s consultant was Jeff Roe.”
Roe denied any involvement, telling CNN by phone that he, the campaign and his employees did not send the text.
“He has just run a tremendously dirty campaign,” Frost said of Askar.
Askar campaign spokesperson Kristin Davison also told CNN the text message did not come from their campaign or Roe,saying, “It is 100% false.” Davison, who working on the campaign as part of Axiom Strategies, which was founded by Roe, suggested the text message may have come from the Donalds campaign or another rival campaign.
CNN was able to trace the two numbers back to a company named Twilio, which allows its clients to utilize computer programming to make and receive phone calls, and to send and receive texts.
Twilio’s director of corporate communications, Cris Paden, confirmed its services had been used after CNN notified the company of the incident.
“Twilio can confirm that two of our phone numbers – 432-287-1621 and 772-794-8439 – were used,” Paden said. “Twilio takes this very seriously and is giving this the highest priority to identify the full scope of the situation and take appropriate action.”
Paden said the company is investigating the incident and that the two numbers have now been suspended.
After CNN contacted YouTube about the video, YouTube spokesperson Alex Joseph said the Google-owned company removed it and terminated the channel for violating its community guidelines.
Florida’s Republican Party was alerted to the texts by the Donalds campaign and media reports.
Ben Gibson, the party’s general counsel, declined to say whether the party agrees with Frost’s accusation.
“It just looks like a dirty campaign tactic that’s really unfortunate,” he said, adding: “To have something like this dropped on you on election day is concerning.”
Gibson said the party condemned the fake texts but that any potential investigation by law enforcement would be the campaign’s call. Frost told CNN that the Donalds campaign would look into such an investigation, but that Tuesday they were focused on correcting the record and the vote.
“That certainly will be part of our future going forward no matter how this turns out, because this is unacceptable,” Frost said. “We have to stop these dirty campaign tactics.”