Where Do the Alaskan Senate Candidates Stand on Outside Spending?

As outside spending floods Alaska's Senate race, its two opposing candidates continue to offer opinions that contradict not only each other, but themselves.

June 12, 2014

In Alaska’s U.S. Senate election – widely anticipated to be one of the nation’s most competitive – two opposing candidates can’t agree with each other about the independent spending flooding the race. In fact, they each seem to hold complex – if not downright contradictory – opinions about the role of independent spending in elections.

Dan Sullivan, currently leading in the Republican primary, proposed this week that he and Democratic incumbent Mark Begich eschew outside spending in the race, and accept a financial penalty for outside spending in their favor. There is a successful precedent for this kind of mutual disarmament: In the 2012 Massachusetts senate race, Sen. Scott Brown and his rival Elizabeth Warren agreed to sign a “People’s Pledge” swearing off outside spending.  The candidates agreed to pay a penalty equivalent to half the cost of any independent expenditure on TV or the internet to a charity of their opponent’s choice.  The plan successfully suppressed outside spending in the Massachusetts race, and prompted similar agreements to appear in other races.

So there was reason to think this could work in Alaska. But even as he calls for a halt to independent spending, Sullivan says he supports Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that made torrents of outside spending commonplace in American elections. And regardless, Sen. Begich rebuffed Sullivan’s “People’s Pledge” offer – while simultaneously criticizing unlimited corporate spending and calling for Citizens United to be overturned.

Why can’t Sullivan and Begich make up their minds about whether outside spending is a good or bad thing? They may be worried that the respective positions of their parties go against their self-interest in this race.

Democrats are making a national issue out of runaway independent expenditures, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attacking heavy-hitting outside spenders Charles and David Koch and moving a constitutional amendment that would reverse Supreme Court decisions invalidating campaign finance regulations.

But Democratic Sen. Begich has a large lead in outside spending. A single-candidate super PAC called Put Alaska First has spent $2.3 million supporting Begich and attacking Sullivan. Put Alaska First receives much of its money from Senate Majority PAC, a Washington based super PAC dedicated to preserving the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

Republicans, on the other hand, tend to oppose most campaign finance regulation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asked the Supreme Court to uphold Citizens United in 2012, and last month the Republican National Committee sued the Federal Election Commission, seeking to strike down parts of the McCain-Feingold law that outlawed unlimited “soft money” contributions.

Despite his party’s support for independent spending, Sullivan, has so far racked up only half as much in independent expenditures as Begich. Sullivan has benefited from supportive ads by the Club for Growth and American Crossroads, as well as his own single-candidate super PAC, Alaska’s Energy / America’s Values. At more than a million dollars, the outside spending in Sullivan’s favor is significant. But Begich’s large lead in both independent expenditure support and inside fundraising may be making Sullivan very nervous.

Sullivan has said that while he believes in the right to engage in independent spending, in this race, he wants Alaskans to choose, rather than special interest groups. Perhaps it’s not incoherent to believe that Citizens United was correctly decided while opposing specific independent expenditures. And Begich may simply believe that the “People’s Pledge” Sullivan proposed wouldn’t work, despite its success in other races. But given that elections create enormous pressure to do anything to win, it’s hard to deny the appearance that these candidates’ positions are motivated by their concern for electoral advantage, rather than what is best for the voters of Alaska.

(Image: Dylan A. Marcheschi/Christina Bernard)