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Begich and Sullivan could stop flood of super PAC dollars in Alaska

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 29, 2014

Labor Day is the traditional beginning of the fall campaign season, though the flood of negative political ads that already has washed over Alaska this year is a sad reminder that traditional campaigns are a thing of the past.

Still, it's a good time and probably the last chance for incumbent Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan to take a meaningful stand against the often anonymous, big money donors behind all those negative commercials and to focus their campaigns on things that really matter to Alaska and the nation.

A simple agreement, christened the "People's Pledge" when it was pioneered in Massachusetts two years ago, would permit Begich and Sullivan to push the super PACs and their hidden donors out of Alaska. Here's how it works.

Participating candidates agree to make charitable donations from their campaign funds equal to half of any money spent for advertising on their behalf by "independent" outside groups. Each candidate chooses the charity that his or her opponent's funds will benefit.

In Massachusetts, this arrangement between then-Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren led super PACs to close their checkbooks and depart. The groups were quite rationally unwilling to make investments in ads they knew would be offset by major withdrawals from the candidates' treasuries.

A post-election study by Common Cause Massachusetts found that five times as much "dark money" -- funds provided by secret donors operating through "independent" groups -- was spent on hotly-contested Senate races in Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin as in the Brown-Warren race in Massachusetts. Outside groups did not purchase a single television ad in Massachusetts that year.

With the big money groups out of the picture, Brown and Warren fueled their campaigns with modest gifts from individual donors and concentrated their attention on issues important to them and to Massachusetts voters.

Their agreement on the pledge also helped Brown and Warren connect with the growing number of voters concerned about the influence of big money in politics. A poll commissioned by Public Citizen and released this month found 68 percent of voters have a favorable or very favorable view of agreements like the People's Pledge. A full 70 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents said they favored such an agreement.

Survey participants said the pledge makes politicians more accountable to voters (66 percent of voters agreed), forces candidates to take responsibility for their ads (65 percent agreed), and ensures a more equal voice for all in the election process (62 percent agreed).

This year, the pledge has been embraced by Democratic candidates for governor in Rhode Island, who adopted it for their party primary, and proposed by candidates in both major parties in several other states. In Alaska, Sullivan has challenged Begich to adopt the pledge but so far no agreement has been reached.

That's too bad. The pledge is simple, straightforward and effective. And because the Supreme Court has all but destroyed common-sense limits on campaign spending, the People's Pledge is our only real hope to avoid two more months of anonymously-purchased mudslinging guaranteed to diminish both candidates in the Senate race and our democracy along with them.

Dale Eisman is acting director of communications at Common Cause in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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