Alaska’s Senate race has become the poster child for everyone opposed to unlimited campaign spending by corporations, excessively wealthy individuals and the super PACs they create. Republican candidate Dan Sullivan proposed that he and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sign a pledge directing third-party special interest groups to cease airing television and radio campaign ads in Alaska. It’s a nice gesture. But it’s not what we need to clean up our elections.
The Alaska Pledge proposed by Sullivan is modeled after the one used in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. If a third-party special interest group pays for a television or radio ad supporting a candidate or attacking his opponent, half the cost of said ad would be donated from that candidate’s campaign fund to a charity chosen by his opponent.
There are multiple aspects to this debate. Sullivan is focused on eliminating the influence of people and organizations who reside outside of Alaska. That seems logical because the candidate who eventually goes to Washington, D.C., is supposed to represent us.
It’s not that simple. The Senate is a legislative body that establishes national laws and policies while disbursing taxpayer dollars for hundreds of programs and initiatives. Senators need to consider their constituents’ needs and values alongside national interests. It makes sense for many people and businesses in other states to feel they have a vested interest in the outcome of our senatorial race.
This wasn’t a huge concern until the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited campaign spending by corporations, unions and public advocacy groups, but the problem really began almost half a century earlier with another Supreme Court decision that married money to our First Amendment right of free speech.
Money by itself isn’t speech. In political campaigns, it buys the opportunity to speak. The more money you have, the louder your voice. It’s turned upside-down the cardinal heart of the Declaration of Independence — that we’re all created equal. Our elected government no longer derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” Instead, it almost exclusively hears the moneyed interests in our country.
There’s another angle to money being free speech that the “pledge” can’t solve — it’s called substance. In the 2012 Massachusetts race, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren effectively kept third parties off the airwaves. Five weeks before the election, however, political commentator Rosie Gray titled a piece she wrote “The Ugliest Campaign in America.” Instead of outsiders slinging the mud, she observed, Warren and Brown were doing it themselves.
What the Massachusetts story revealed is that, as the most expensive Senate race in American history, two respectable candidates had plenty of money to put cheap, negative sound bites into expensive television ads. The apparent side effect of spending more money this way was to infuriate their opponent’s supporters, which then injected the entire electorate with a mass dose of incivility.
It’ll happen here. Consider the recent attack by Sullivan against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, one of his Republican primary opponents. Under a “For Immediate Release Banner,” Sullivan’s staff sent a message to all his media contacts claiming Treadwell attended a “pro-Putin rally” in Washington, D.C. The event actually was an annual forum intended to promote cooperation between Russian and America. Treadwell’s interest was in the Arctic, a region of mutual interest to the U.S., Russia and, of course, Alaska.
Sullivan didn’t need outside sources to totally mischaracterize Treadwell’s purpose for attending the forum. Sure, his nasty disguise of the truth didn’t require a lot of money. The point is that, if he wins the Republican nomination, his Alaska Pledge won’t prevent him from doing the same thing against Begich. Such attacks likely will be reciprocated by Begich, his campaigners and everyday supporters.
What we, the people, need to clean up our elections are due process rules that make all offending parties accountable for the substance of their ads. It could be modeled after our system of civil justice. Whenever a candidate or independent group airs or distributes a negative attack ad, they and their advertising agency should have to bear the cost of their opponent’s response. Maybe then we’d have political campaigns where respect, substance, and above all, the truth, matter more than money.