Bipartisan Anti-PAC Pledge May Unravel

February 2, 2012 Updated: February 2, 2012

In a bipartisan agreement, Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Sen. Scott Brown signed a pledge last month to curb political attack ads by outside groups in their Massachusetts Senate race, but concerns are surfacing that the pact may be difficult to enforce.

The agreement, available on Warren’s website, stipulates: “If an independent third-party group spends money on TV, radio, or online supporting a candidate, that candidate has agreed to pay 50 percent of the cost of airing that ad to a charity of the other candidate’s choice.”

The pact is the first proposed by candidates to control spending by super PACs since the third-party groups surfaced as a result of court rulings, which make it easier for corporations, unions, and private individuals to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns.

As part of that ruling, candidates are prohibited from having any coordinating role in the PACs.

Vincent Moscardelli, assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, described the pledge as “novel” but questioned the ability of the candidates to influence “entities” over which they have “no direct control.”

“In the abstract, the pledge is clearly an attractive idea, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be popular among members of the public. But the key question remains its enforceability,” Moscardelli wrote in an email.

Already some of the interest groups are pushing the boundaries.

Pro-Warren PAC, Rethink, which has backers including United Healthcare Workers, 1199SEIU, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, have stepped up their attacks on Brown, accusing him of being a Wall Street lackey and a flip-flopper, on their website RethinkBrown.com.

The Massachusetts GOP, meanwhile, has aired a new Web video attacking Elizabeth Warren for being “too divisive,” “too radical,” and out-of-touch as a Harvard professor.

Both tactics are allowable under the pledge since they are not paid for, and are simply groups posting on their own websites.

Professor Moscardelli believes defining the guidelines of the pledge will be a challenge.

“In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if this agreement collapsed under the weight of a series of “he said, she said” disagreements about precisely what does, and what does not, fall under the agreement,” professor Moscardelli said.

Massachusetts Key in Elections

Massachusetts is shaping up as a major battleground in the general elections—the State falling to little-known Republican Scott Brown in a special election following the death of Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2010. Kennedy held the seat for the Democrats for nearly half a century.

The loss of a Democrat seat at that time meant the Democrats no longer control the 60 votes in the Senate needed to thwart filibusters, leaving Barack Obama’s health care bill under threat.

Professor Warren too had become a controversial figure chairing the Congressional Oversight Panel of the 2008 U.S. banking bailout. She also formulated and established the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Warren has received strong endorsements from Democrats and their supporters, garnering over $1 million in a one-day “money bomb” Jan. 19, and over $8 million last year, according to her website.

Her candidacy in what was once Democratic heartland, has also raised the stakes for Republicans.

Scott Brown has also received considerable backing, not only from the Republican establishment, but also from cashed-up outside interests, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroad, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street, says the Center for Public Integrity.

Financial giants, Fidelity Investments and Goldman Sachs, were among Brown’s top five contributors during his Senate campaign.

Brown is estimated to have double the cash on hand, according to Politico.

Professor Moscardelli said research has shown that candidates prefer maintaining control of their own campaigns, and that other candidates would be curious to see how the pledge panned out.

However, professor Moscardelli believes the pressure to win will become too great to restrain the PACs.

“Outside groups have to respect the ban for this to work, and in the final weeks of what could turn out to be a close race, I have doubts that they’ll be willing to stay on the sidelines,” he said.