Editorial: Brown’s 2012 pledge makes sense in 2014
Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown hasn’t formally committed to running for the Senate from New Hampshire, but from the intense public scrutiny of his would-be race against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, you might think it was November. Already, the two camps are squabbling over the role of outside money in the campaign – money that has been pouring into the state for months.
Our view is this: When Shaheen compliments Brown on the campaign finance pledge he and his opponent, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, took in 2012, she’s right. It would be in the interest of New Hampshire voters for Brown and Shaheen to sign a similar agreement this year.
Two years ago, when Brown was running for reelection in Massachusetts, he and Warren agreed that they didn’t want third-party groups advertising on their behalf. If any such groups did so – either in support of their candidate or attacking his or her opponent – the beneficiary was required to make a contribution worth 50 percent of the cost of that outside advertising to a charity chosen by the other candidate.
The goal was keeping the candidates themselves in charge of their messages – and giving voters some assurance that they knew who was behind the claims and counter-claims they heard on television, the internet and beyond. It would also keep the candidates from hiding behind outside messengers to deliver attacks. It’s not as though Brown and Warren didn’t spend big money themselves – they did. And it’s not as though their race wasn’t heated – it was. But once Brown and Warren entered into this agreement, attacks ads by third-party groups came to a halt.
What sounded like a gimmick actually achieved a goal that earnest campaign finance reformers have so far been unable to achieve via courts or legislation. Brown and Warren took it upon themselves to reverse the typically toxic campaign-year tsunami of untruths delivered by unknown messengers.
In a speech to the Amherst College Republicans last year, Brown described the experience enthusiastically: “I and she were really disgusted and deeply concerned about the groups that would come in and distort our records and positions on things, those third-party super-PACs in particular. So we came up with a very unique way to handle that. We signed an agreement. It’s historic. It’s the only one in the country, that said that they can come in, for example the Koch brothers, or a progressive group or the teachers union, or firefighters, they could come in and play, but if they, in fact, benefit one candidate over the other, then the person who is (helped) by that ad has to pay half of the ad buy and put it towards a charity of the other person’s choice. . . . So we spent $42 million, I think my opponent spent a little more, and can you imagine if we had another $50 million in negative ads out there?”
Shaheen has been eager to get Brown to agree to an encore. So far, he has demurred.
Now, we can understand why Shaheen might see more personal benefit in such a pledge than Brown would this year. After all, when Brown agreed to such rules in 2012, he lost. And this year Shaheen has already been the target of a far bigger flood of attack ads by third-party groups than has Brown. So far, such groups have spent more than $1.5 million on Brown’s behalf; $360,000 has been spent against him. National conservative activists who once assumed Shaheen would be easily re-elected now think she has a real race on her hands – and are eager to help defeat her.
But Brown was right to agree to such a pledge in his last race and would be right to do so again. Part of his challenge in 2014 will be convincing New Hampshire voters that he’s actually interested in them – not just in a quick return to Washington. Such a pledge would be a good start.