Alaska Editorial: 'Alaska Agreement' good theory, flawed practice

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

In 2008, Alaska’s usually low-profile Senate contests came to an end, as Sen. Ted Stevens saw his decades-long career in office come crashing down amidst a corruption trial that made national headlines.

Two years later, the 49th state got heavy press again when Sen. Lisa Murkowski was toppled by challenger Joe Miller in an unexpected primary result, only to mount a successful and widely publicized write-in campaign.

This year, the state’s Senate race is once again in the spotlight, as incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich will face a strong challenge from whichever Republican candidate emerges from the August primary.

This week Dan Sullivan, the best-funded of Begich’s challengers, came forward with a pledge for which he’s seeking Begich’s support. Called the “Alaska Agreement,” the pledge’s stated purpose is to leave state residents in control of the race’s funding.

Under its terms, candidates would have to donate half the value of any third-party attack ad buys to a charity of their opponent’s choice. Mr. Sullivan modeled the agreement on the “People’s Pledge” agreed to by Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren in their 2012 race in Massachusetts.

At first glance, the agreement’s principle is well intentioned: Why not cut out negative ads made with outside money?

But the particulars of the race make it clear that this agreement is a political gambit rather than a true effort at campaign finance reform. Both Sullivan and Begich will be able to raise ample money in their own campaign coffers to saturate media from here to the primary and — if Sullivan prevails there — the general election. Both candidates are already running ads heavily, some of which are already turning toward the negative.

Even with the agreement in place, Alaskans would likely see little difference in the volume or tone of the ads they see and hear in the newspaper, online, and on the radio and TV airwaves.

Furthermore, the agreement makes no mention of candidates in the race other than Sullivan and Begich, despite the fact that polling shows Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and the aforementioned Miller as credible candidates who have very realistic chances of emerging from the Republican primary.

Treadwell, who isn’t known for making high-profile comments thus far in the race, called the agreement a “publicity stunt,” pointing to the fact that Mr. Sullivan has raised the majority of his campaign funds from donors outside Alaska.

Also undercutting Sullivan’s intention of giving local voices more weight in political campaigns is his stance in support of the U.S. Supreme Court’s well-publicized decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which prohibited the government from restricting campaign spending of the sort he would seek to limit in his current race.

The disharmony between Sullivan’s stances on political campaigns in general and the specific race he is running this fall is peculiar, and doesn’t support his stated intentions in seeking the agreement.

We agree that elections, especially recent ones, have become longer, more expensive, and dirtier affairs than is beneficial to healthy political discourse, and that the sentiment of Sullivan’s “Alaska Agreement” is worthwhile.

We should seek to have more local voices and issues represented in political races at every level of government.

But we can’t square that intention with the facts of how this year’s Senate race is being conducted — and with Mr. Sullivan’s unwillingness to support limits on campaign finance in races other than his own.

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