Senate candidates disagree on solution to outside spending 'problem'

Nathaniel Herz

One of the few areas in which incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his Republican challenger Dan Sullivan see eye to eye is their position on the more than $12 million spent this year by outside groups seeking to influence the outcome of their election.

Begich and Sullivan both decry all that money, not associated with the campaigns, which has flooded television and radio stations with thousands of negative advertisements, driven up prices and shut state candidates and local groups out of the market.

But the two can’t agree on how to fix the problem.

Begich, who's nearing the end of his first six-year term, supports a constitutional amendment to permanently reverse a recent pair of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that removed limits on campaign contributions by corporations, unions and individuals. It’s a measure that would allow Congress to set limits on raising and spending of money for federal campaigns -- but even campaign finance reform advocates admit it’s a long shot.

Sullivan, the former state attorney general and Department of Natural Resources commissioner selected in last week's Republican Party primary, is skeptical about a constitutional amendment. And he doesn’t have a plan for a permanent fix to the outside money problem if he’s elected.

But he does have a proposal that he and campaign finance reformers say would work in this year’s Senate race. The plan -- which Sullivan has dubbed the “Alaska Agreement” -- would create an incentive for the outside groups to stand down by penalizing a candidate when a group spends money on his behalf.

Begich, however, won’t sign.

“I’m not going to allow him to be a hypocrite and also be disingenuous with his position here,” Begich said in a phone interview Thursday, in which he dismissed Sullivan’s proposal as “made-up D.C. propaganda he got out of a consultant.”

“If he believes this is a problem for this campaign, then he should believe it is a problem for this country, and he should commit to reversing Citizens United,” Begich added, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on ads pushing for the election or defeat of candidates.

Sullivan responded by saying that the two issues -- cutting off outside spending in the 2014 election, and cutting it off permanently -- are not tied together.

He said he was skeptical of a constitutional amendment and described Begich’s position as a “dodge.”

“I trust James Madison a lot more than I trust Harry Reid,” Sullivan said in a phone interview, referring to the Democratic Senate leader. “The longer-term issues, sure. I would look to explore that. But how to do that, and how quickly you could do that, is a huge question.”

“We’re trying to address an immediate challenge to this election,” he said.

It’s difficult to account for all of the spending by outside groups in the U.S. Senate election, since some are nonprofits that don’t disclose their spending on individual races. But a rough Alaska Dispatch News tally of 10 of the highest-spending groups found that the two sides -- supporting Sullivan and supporting Begich -- had kept pace with each other.

Sullivan made his proposal during the primary season, after the outside groups had begun targeting him and Begich; the other Republican primary candidates were largely left alone. 

Begich quickly rejected the proposal but it was resurrected in a recent Sullivan campaign ad that features the Republican candidate firing a handgun at a television set. Sullivan maintains his proposed agreement wouldn’t benefit him, citing how a similar proposal was put in place in a U.S. Senate race in 2012 in Massachusetts, in which the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren, ended up winning the election.

The plan would kick in any time an outside group spends money on television or radio ads on behalf of a candidate or attacking their opponent. The beneficiary would then have to donate half of the same amount of money from their own campaign to charity.

“For a guy who decries outside spending in emails almost daily, I thought there was a good chance he might sign it,” Sullivan said, referring to campaign appeals that Begich sends to his supporters.

Begich said if Sullivan had been serious about the proposal, he would have negotiated it with Begich’s campaign before publicizing it to media.

Begich added that the plan won’t work because “there’s no way we can force any of those third-party groups to stop what they’re doing.”

The Koch brothers -- whose affiliated groups have attacked Begich with television ads this year -- “are not interested,” Begich said.

But a similar agreement did work in the Massachusetts Senate race. The plan, 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.

A national poll conducted in July by Lake Research Partners -- which has also done polling for Begich’s campaign -- found that 68 percent of likely voters had a favorable view of a People’s Pledge.

Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause’s national branch, said in a phone interview, “We appreciate Dan Sullivan’s call for trying to empower everyday Alaskans and to prohibit special interests from trying to influence the election there.”

The group has called on both candidates to sign the agreement.

But Scherb also said that Sullivan’s proposal was only a “good initial step” and wouldn’t solve all the problems of outside money in politics. And Sullivan does not support two measures backed by Common Cause and by Begich: the constitutional amendment overturning the recent Supreme Court decisions, and the DISCLOSE Act, which would force more groups that engage in significant political spending to identify their donors and to say how much they’re paying for their campaigns.

“There’s not a clear kind of consistency for Dan Sullivan,” Scherb said. “If he supported both those other proposals, that would be much more consistent and aligned with the goals of what he’s trying to achieve in the proposed Alaska Agreement.”

As for the outside groups involved in the Senate campaign?

Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant who runs the pro-Begich Put Alaska First super PAC, said he sees value in the ads he’s run over the course of the campaign.

“Most of this stuff is informative, though annoying, and the public is served,” he said.

But Lottsfeldt also acknowledged that the current system allows groups like his to dominate political discourse.

“People like me and others are players in the election, even though we’re not on the ballot. We’re driving debate. We’re driving discussion. I’m not running for office,” he said in a phone interview. “That seems artificial and wrong.”

But Art Hackney, another Anchorage consultant who runs a pro-Sullivan super PAC called Alaska’s Energy, America’s Values, called the outside spending an “exercise of political speech” and said he didn’t see it as a problem -- as long as the players were mindful of voters’ attitudes.

“It’s a matter of how the public sees it, and that’s what you have to be aware of,” he said. “The more money the better -- with the caveat that if you turn people off, you turn people off.”