ANCHORAGE — Yet another group from outside Alaska is getting involved in the state’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race, but this time it’s a political action committee seeking to get rid of some outside ad spending. Its target: the money from large groups that do not disclose their donors.
The group, CounterPAC, started running television ads Thursday urging Alaskans to call the campaigns of Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan to ask that the candidates condemn so-called “untraceable attack money” or “dark money.”
The way CounterPAC’s proposal would work is that Begich and Sullivan would both sign the group’s pledge, and if a “dark money” group airs an ad promoting or attacking a candidate, the campaign benefiting from the ad would donate 50 percent of the ad’s cost to a charity of the opposing candidate’s choice. The pledge defines groups whose spending should be rejected as any entity whose funding source is not clearly disclosed or that cannot be traced back to individuals, well-known corporations with at least $50 million revenue for each of the last five years or nonprofits with more than 1 million members in existence for more than 10 years, among other requirements.
CounterPAC calls it “mutual assured democracy.”
“The only thing candidates need more than money is votes,” CounterPAC co-founder Jim Greer said Friday by phone from San Francisco. “Our hope is to both reach out to the candidates but also go directly to the public and through media and ads to raise the issue of all this undisclosed spending in races and use this combination of money, shame and so forth to get candidates to engage on this issue.”
Even before the primary election Tuesday, which saw Begich win the Democratic nomination handily and Sullivan edge out Tea Party favorite Joe Miller on the Republican side, millions of dollars had been spent by groups either supporting or bashing the high-profile candidates. New ads hit the airwaves and Internet starting early Wednesday, just hours after the election appeared decided, albeit unofficially.
Some of that ad spending before and after the primary came from committees on both sides that file reports with the Federal Election Commission and clearly disclose their donors. Those groups would not be affected by CounterPAC’s proposal. That includes the majority of spending leading up to the Senate primary, such as Begich supporters Put Alaska First, which spent more than $4 million against Sullivan, and American Crossroads, which spent nearly $900,000 opposing Begich.
But there are other large groups that would be asked to bow out, and CounterPAC’s supporters and co-founder Greer say it would be a good first step toward lessening the impact of a handful of wealthy, unknown donors whose money generally ends up going toward negative advertising. Along with Alaska, CounterPAC is also running ads in Georgia and West Virginia and has plans to expand its reach to other states, Greer said. In Alaska, the group has spent tens of thousands of dollars and Greer said it may purchase more.
“We’re not trying to start by getting angry and naming and shaming and so forth,” Greer said. “We feel like if there’s one side that is willing to do it and another that’s not, the tone of those ads might change and the dollars spent might change as well.”
Greer said CounterPAC is still discussing the pledge with the Begich and Sullivan campaigns, and he would not comment on how the conversation is going so far, other than to say the talks have been “productive.”
Neither the Begich nor Sullivan campaigns would say Friday if they planned to sign on or not.
Sullivan campaign spokesman Mike Anderson pointed out that Sullivan offered a stronger “gentleman’s agreement” to Begich earlier in the primary campaign that would have been more akin to an agreement between Massachusetts Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown in 2012, when Warren and Brown agreed to reject spending by any third-party group that benefited them, not just the untraceable spending on which CounterPAC is focused.
It took the Begich campaign only two hours to reject the so-called “Alaska Agreement” in June, Anderson said.
“It shows that they don’t put Alaskans first and that they’ve decided to side with (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and the liberal special interest groups,” Anderson said, adding that the offer was still available. “If he were to sign it tomorrow, it would be game on.”
While Anderson did not comment on the Sullivan campaign’s intentions with the CounterPAC proposal, he said it was far narrower than the Alaska Agreement.
“What it’s trying to do and what it would do are two different things,” Anderson said. “It wouldn’t cover the vast amount of spending that’s already taken place.”
When asked if it was too small of a first step toward reducing the influence of outside money on the race, Anderson said yes.
But was it a worthwhile first step?
“It won’t do what it pretends to do, which is get outside spending off the airwaves,” he said.
Reporters asked Begich at a campaign appearance Wednesday about the CounterPAC pledge, though he did not seem to know all of the proposal's details at the time. Begich said that he generally supported efforts to force third-party groups to disclose their funding sources. Ultimately, that would require legislation to be effective he said.
“If you really want to change the system, you have to change the laws preventing full disclosure,” Begich said. “I’ll look at whatever’s out there, but I’ll tell you what, on disclosure, I’m not going to focus just on one campaign.
"He (Sullivan) is running for United States senator, where you make the laws that determine the outcome across the country. Where does he stand on these issues? Is he just feathering his own nest? Or is it about all campaigns? I’m about all campaigns.”
Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes said Friday the campaign had not made a decision yet on the CounterPAC proposal.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter. Contact him at 907-770-0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove.