Tuesday, Dan Sullivan, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, proposed curbing independent expenditures by so-called Super PACs in the Alaska Senate race.
In a press release, Sullivan said, “Third party special interest groups with unlimited spending capability have committed tens of millions of dollars to this race, shattering previous records and crowding out Alaskan voices.” His Alaska Agreement would discourage independent expenditures by making candidates donate 50 percent of a third party ad buy to a charity of the opponent’s choice. The proposal was submitted for review by the press already signed by Sullivan with a blank space awaiting Begich’s signature.
Independent political expenditures are now unlimited due to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v FEC. As long as Super PACs do not consult directly with campaigns, they can generate as many ads supporting or opposing a candidate as they are financially able.
Sullivan’s plan is modeled on the People’s Pledge used during the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. Sullivan’s campaign attorney advised Republican Scott Brown during that race. The Pledge, supported by Common Cause, reduced outside money in that race to nine percent of total expenditures. The following year, during a special election won by Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), outside spending swelled to 36 percent of total expenditures in the absence of a People’s Pledge.
There is a key difference between the Massachusetts Pledge and Sullivan’s Alaska Agreement; the People’s Pledge was negotiated between candidates Elizabeth Warren and Brown.
By contrast, Sullivan’s unilateral approach is confrontational. In his accompanying press release, Sullivan says, “All it takes for this plan to work here in Alaska is for Senator Begich to sign his name next to mine on the dotted line. I call upon Mark to be as ‘independent’ as he claims and join me in this pledge.” Sullivan also established an online petition to “tell Mark Begich to join Dan in the Alaska Agreement #LetAlaskansDecide.” He adds that “Talk is cheap” in the Agreement itself, while the pronouns “we” and “our” belie the fact that the Sullivan campaign was exclusively involved in the drafting of the document.
An Alaska Democratic Party press release called Sullivan’s plan a “blatant display of hypocrisy” in light of his public support of the Citizens United decision.
Ironically, while Sullivan decries outside money influencing elections in Alaska, 89 percent of his direct campaign financing is from out of state. Begich has raised 76 percent of his money out of state. And while all eight of Begich’s top eight zip codes by donation totals are in Alaska, only two of Sullivan’s are. His largest source of funds is the Cleveland area.
It is important to note that the People’s Pledge was not completely effective in reducing outside spending and did little to reduce intercampaign acrimony. The American Petroleum Institute (API) ran issue ads that coincided with Brown’s position on oil taxes. Warren cried foul, and Brown eventually conceded that the ads violated the Pledge, though he argued there was a loophole. (API has run ads in support of Begich during this cycle.)
While the Pledge, like Sullivan’s Alaska Agreement, discouraged radio and TV ads, it said nothing about other forms of advertising. Super PACs used money they would have spent on TV and radio for robocalls and direct mailings to voters. Were Begich to sign, Alaskans would almost certainly find their mailboxes and answering machines full of campaign material through the Summer and Fall.
Brown, who has since moved to New Hampshire and is again running for U.S. Senate, has refused to sign an identical People’s Pledge to the one negotiated in 2012. He is benefitting from high volumes of Super PAC money in that race.
Like Brown in 2012, Begich is an incumbent running in a state dominated by the opposition party. Hence, he is a big target in this year’s mid-term election. Alaska is a key pickup if Republicans are to realize their goal of becoming the Senate majority.
Democrats have financially rushed to protect Begich, who as an incumbent, already has an inherent fundraising advantage. As of March 31, when the most recent disclosure statements were due, Begich had raised over $6.6 million. In a speaking engagement at the University of Alaska Anchorage on Sunday, Begich said he expected his campaign to raise between $10 million and $13 million by the election. Sullivan’s campaign has raised less than half that of Begich. Sullivan’s Republican opponents Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller are a distant third and fourth, respectively.
The independent expenditures that the Alaska Agreement addresses also tilt in Begich’s favor. While amounts spent in support of Begich and Sullivan are roughly even, almost $2 million has been spent in opposition to Sullivan. The big player, spending over $2 million in support of Begich and opposition to Sullivan, is Put Alaska First PAC. Put Alaska First, which relies heavily on the Democratic Senate Majority PAC for funding, plans to spend $4 million on ads in support of Begich in the two months prior to the November general election.
The next largest contributors, American Crossroads and the US Chamber of Commerce, both of which oppose Begich, have spent a combined $1 million. Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch Brothers, has also spent over $1 million against Begich, according to the Begich campaign, but the organization has not officially disclosed its Alaska expenditures for this election cycle.
Opposition spending is another huge flaw in the Alaska Agreement. The Agreement says that it affects ads that “support a candidate or attack that candidate’s opponent.” But there are 11 candidates for the Senate seat. Sullivan has three opponents in the August Republican primary, yet the provisions of his proposal go into effect on July 4. An ad attacking Sullivan stands to benefit Treadwell, Miller, and Republican John Jaramillo just as much as Begich or his primary opponent William Bryk. Super PACs that tacitly support Sullivan’s Republican opponents could attack him via the airwaves, and the only one to be punished under the terms of the agreement would be Begich.
When he was asked why only his and Begich’s names appeared on the document, Sullivan said that those were the two campaigns being targeted by outside groups.
The Alaska Agreement is clearly intended to level the financial playing field for Sullivan, but in disregarding his primary opponents, it also suggests to voters that he is the clear Republican frontrunner well ahead of the primary. Whether or not its message of reducing outside financial influence is genuine, it is a very cost effective way to score some easy political points.