The ‘People’s Pledge’ is back in Alaska. Wait, what the heck is that?


Stacks of $100 bills. Cash money. (Credit: Ieva Geneviciene.)

Stop us if you've heard this one before: Candidate X says to Opponent Y, 'Hey, let's curb the influence of outside money in our race by agreeing to penalize ourselves whenever third-party groups spend cash to help us.'

Ah, so you have heard this one. Well, then, you must have been attuned to the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, in which Republican and Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren reached an historic agreement to blunt the impact of outside spending by signing the "People's Pledge."

The pledge is back -- this time in Alaska. It goes by the name "Alaska Agreement" and Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan is the one who is pushing it. The idea is basically the same: Sullivan wants Sen. Mark Begich (D) to agree that whenever an outside group airs an ad for him (or against Sullivan), the Democrat will donate 50 percent of the value of the ad buy to the charity of Sullivan's choice. Sullivan has agreed to do the same thing in the case of any ads that help him or attack Begich.

"I think one of the reasons that we have confidence in it is because its actually worked before," Sullivan told reporters Tuesday on a conference call.

He's right about it working. In Massachusetts, groups mostly steered clear of meddling, leaving the fight to Brown and Warren. But while the idea has been raised in other contests, we haven't seen another instance in which it has actually gotten the buy-in of both candidates. And it's not likely to happen in Alaska.

In a response, Begich's campaign manager not only did not agree to sign on, but she hit Sullivan for endorsing the landmark "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums for or against candidates.

"Sullivan again tried to tell Alaskans one thing, but then quickly revealed the truth today -- he supports allowing corporations to engage in unlimited spending in our elections," said Begich campaign manager Susanne Fleek-Green. "If Dan Sullivan makes it out of his competitive primary, it will be a stark contrast between his put-corporations-first position and Senator Begich's support for real campaign finance reform including support of a constitutional amendment throwing out Citizens United."

On the conference call, Sullivan was repeatedly asked whether he supports "Citizens United." Without answering directly, Sullivan responded that he supports "strong Supreme Court court decisions that strengthen free speech." Afterward, he affirmed his support for "Citizens Unitedin a tweet.

Like just about everything in politics, the entire episode must be viewed through, well, a political lens. Why, politically, would Sullivan want to propose this pledge in an election cycle when conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity have been swarming Democrats with attack ads? After all, AFP alone  has spent has spent at least $44 million on 2014 congressional races since last August, according to a person familiar with the total.

The answer is that Alaska is a unique case. Air time is relatively cheap in the sparsely populated state. As a result, both Democrats and Republican groups have rushed to flood the airwaves, spending now and reserving millions of dollars worth of air time for the fall, when many more voters will be tuned into the race.

Pro-Begich forces have spent or reserved about $7.7 million worth of of air time this year, according to public records. Pro-Sullivan groups have reserved or spent about $9.3 million.

In short, this is not a race Republican groups are going to be able to buy.

So, if the agreement were signed (and again, it doesn't look like that's going to happen), Sullivan would not be sacrificing the more one-sided air cover that, say, Thom Tillis in North Carolina or the Republican nominee in Georgia probably would be giving up against their Democratic opponents.

Sullivan may be making another political calculation: that such a move may help him shore up his Alaska bona fides. He's been taking heat from Democrats and his main Republican primary opponent over his residency history. Sullivan moved to Alaska in 1997 but spent much of the next decade living in Maryland while he worked in the Bush administration. In between, he was recalled to active military service.

What worked for Brown and Warren has really been nothing more than fodder for political arguments in other Senate races. It's safe to say Alaska won't be the last staging ground for such a tussle.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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