Among any number of things former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown regrets about his loss to Elizabeth Warren last fall, quite possibly the biggest is taking the People’s Pledge – an agreement between the two candidates to discourage outside advertising by special interests or independent expenditure groups and to pay a penalty if one of those groups did start meddling in the race.
The problem for Brown was not that the Pledge didn’t work; the problem was that it did. Instead of, say, former House of Bush consigliere Karl Rove and his Crossroads GPS hit squad attacking Warren in TV spots (as it was until the Pledge was signed), Brown had to do his own dirty work. That put a serious dent in not only his previous nice guy image, but also his percentage of the female vote.
In the course of that 2012 Senate race there were lots of end runs by third-party groups, mostly via direct-mail campaigns (the Pledge only applied to television, radio, and Internet ads). Warren proponents such as pro-choice Emily’s List (to the tune of $260,000) and the League of Conservation Voters ($200,000) spent over $1.5 million on mailers and flyers, while pro-Brown forces such as anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform (which ponied up $440,000) and the Koch-fueled America 360 ($280,000) spent more than a million.
Now comes another People’s Pledge, this time between Massachusetts congressmen Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch in the special Senate election for the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. At the start of the race both Markey and Lynch agreed to try to keep the kibitzers out. Given the work-arounds of the previous Pledge, Lynch and Markey expanded theirs to include direct mail in addition to TV, radio, and Internet ads.
A big improvement, wouldn’t you think?
Maybe not. As the Boston Globe just reported, spending by outside groups in the Senate Democratic primary has already exceeded $1.5 million. This time around, the special interests are funding the nuts and bolts of – in particular – the Markey campaign, including “staff time, press releases, recruitment of volunteers, office supplies, political bumper stickers, rally signs, field campaign consulting, pledge cards and repairs to digital tracking equipment.”
Like water, political money finds the cracks.
During the 2012 election cycle, independent expenditure groups spent, according to OpenSecrets.com, roughly one billion dollars – most of it on advertising and much of it to little or no effect.
Any People’s Pledge is, at heart, an attempt to minimize the influence of that special-interest money on political campaigns. But in the case of the Markey/Lynch race, their Pledge has led not to reducing special-interest spending, but merely cost-shifting it to areas other than advertising.
The financial impact of special interests, therefore, remains. And possibly in a more powerful way. The eco-activist League of Conservation Voters (LCV), for instance, has already spent $545,000 on staff time, press releases, and etc. for Markey, according to the Globe report. The LCV also “[plans] to spend at least $650,000 on a field campaign to support Markey, including knocking on the doors of more than 240,000 likely Democratic primary voters.”
That makes the LCV an even more integral part of the Markey campaign than if it were just running TV spots supporting him (or more likely attacking Lynch). Instead, the interest group has virtually become the Markey campaign’s infrastructure, which will prove to be a much greater force in the overall campaign.
The organized-labor Service Employees International Union has also kicked in $368,000 “to cover gas, staff salaries, and canvassing services” for the Markey campaign, effectively doubling down on special-interest influence.
Here we have the very definition of the law of unintended consequences: In an attempt to minimize the effect of outside money on political races, the People’s Pledge has actually magnified it.