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Begich dismisses GOP Senate candidate Sullivan’s proposal to curb ad spending

Nathaniel Herz

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and one of the Republicans vying to replace him traded barbs Tuesday over a proposal to mute the influence of Outside super PACs in the remaining months of the campaign

GOP candidate Dan Sullivan, who must win August’s Republican primary to take on Begich, proposed an agreement on a Tuesday conference call with media that he said would curb the huge influx of Outside ad spending on his race. It was rejected immediately afterwards by a Begich spokesman, who called the move a “political machination.” 

Sullivan’s campaign Tuesday morning released what it called the “Alaska Agreement,” modeled on a similar pact that successfully constrained third-party spending in a 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, according to clean elections groups. 

With five months until the general election, Alaska has already become a battleground for the independent groups known as super PACs, with more television ads aired for the Senate race than in any other state, according to Kantar Media, a tracking firm. 

A recent report by the New York Times said more than $20 million in ads have been reserved for the race.

Sullivan’s campaign distributed a pre-signed copy of the agreement Tuesday, with a blank line above Begich’s name.

“All it takes for this to work in Alaska is to have Mark Begich’s signature on it,” Sullivan said.

Begich’s campaign spokesman responded by saying Sullivan’s announcement conflicts with his stance on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to the spending he is proposing to tamp down.

On the call, Sullivan did not directly answer two questions about whether he supported that decision, but he said his proposal was not about that 2010 case. Instead, he said, it is “about the way we think this race should be conducted in Alaska, to give our citizens a voice and not to be drowned out.” 

In a Twitter post made after the conference call, Sullivan endorsed the Citizens United decision.

Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes dismissed the Alaska Agreement as Sullivan “trying to have it both ways.” 

“Dan Sullivan isn’t serious about reforming Citizens United, or changing the ability for corporations and outside groups to spend limitless amounts in all elections,” Croes said. “His intent here was to make a political statement and try to score political points on an issue he was 100 percent on the other side of.”

The Sullivan campaign, meanwhile, released a list that included what it said were 18 examples of Begich decrying Outside spending in the Senate race.

Sullivan’s proposal would require both his and Begich’s campaigns to donate to charity 50 percent of any spending by “third party special interest groups” that promotes their own campaign, or attacks their opponent. Sullivan’s charity of choice would be the Wounded Warrior Project, spokesman Mike Anderson said.

The pact could theoretically deter ad buys by independent groups, because their spending would effectively penalize the candidate they’re trying to support.

Sullivan’s campaign said the proposal was modeled on a similar agreement signed by two candidates in the high-profile Massachusetts Senate race in 2012 between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

That agreement, known as the People’s Pledge, led to outside groups contributing just 9 percent of the spending in the Massachusetts race, compared to 62 percent, 64 percent, and 47 percent in other competitive Senate races that year in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio, respectively, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts branch of the elections advocacy group Common Cause.

Television ads in those other races were more than twice as likely to be negative as ads that ran in Massachusetts, the analysis found.

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a phone interview that agreements like the one Sullivan has proposed “are really the only way” to keep out independent spending.

“We totally applaud candidates for proposing and pursuing these good faith agreements,” she said. “They are the only…vehicle for removing huge special interest involvement in elections.”

But she said the signing of the People’s Pledge followed negotiations between the Warren and Brown camps, and added her group has also seen “many other incidents of candidates proposing pledges to score political points, who aren’t really serious about negotiating.”

Wilmot said that unveiling a proposal with a press release is typically not the most effective way for a campaign to introduce a pledge.

Sullivan, in his conference call, said the proposal had been delivered to Begich’s campaign office Tuesday morning.

But Croes, Begich’s spokesman, said the proposal “comes out of nowhere,” and arrived only after the Sullivan campaign had issued a media advisory about it.

Sullivan made his proposal in spite of the fact that he still faces two opponents in August’s Republican primary election. Sullivan said he remains “110 percent” focused on that race, but added his proposal only applied to his and Begich’s campaigns because those were the two that independent groups had been targeting.

In a prepared statement issued late Tuesday, one of Sullivan’s primary opponents, Mead Treadwell, called the Alaska Agreement a “publicity stunt.”

“It’s time that this race returns to discussing issues that matter most to Alaskans,” Treadwell said.

Contact Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com.