If you’re a Maine voter, you care about super-PACs because they fund political advertisements without having to disclose their donors. Tracking who is influencing an election then becomes impossible.
If you’re a candidate for the U.S. Senate, you care about super-PACs because you can’t control them, even when they support you. They may fund attack ads when you didn’t want to run a negative campaign.
There is a way for candidates to discourage funding by third-party political organizations, though. They can voice their opposition as a group — loudly — whenever the ads occur.
Independent candidate Angus King’s challenge to create an agreement with his rivals to discourage spending by outside groups — which have gained momentum since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case in 2010 — is a good idea. But the details must be realistic in order for the proposal to be more than a publicity stunt.
King proposed that he, Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill, Republican candidate Charlie Summers and independent candidates Andrew Ian Dodge, Danny Dalton and Steve Woods pursue a model set by Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate campaign in Massachusetts.
In that arrangement, if a super-PAC pays for an ad that attacks Brown or Warren, the other candidate must make a charitable contribution worth half of the ad’s cost to an organization of the attacked candidate’s choice.
It works in large part because Brown and Warren both have millions in cash to spend on their campaigns. That’s not the case in Maine.
If a super-PAC spent, for example, $30,000 on an ad supporting Dill and blasting King, Dill would be required to hand over $15,000 to a charity of King’s choice, even though she had no role in the ad. What if she doesn’t have the money budgeted? It may be unlikely, but a super-PAC potentially could target candidates in order to bankrupt others.
Another difference between the Maine and Massachusetts races: There are only two candidates in Massachusetts. In Maine, keeping track of what ads are benefiting which candidates could get muddled.
Summers dismissed King’s proposal, as did Dodge. Woods said he would participate, and Dalton said he wouldn’t accept money at all. Dill, meanwhile, offered some alternative ideas. She suggested that candidates only adopt low contribution limits — such as $500 — and eliminate unlimited personal funds in the campaign.
Good for Dill for offering specifics, but it’s not likely that the others will support her proposals. King and Summers have already loaned their campaigns various sums, and it’s questionable whether soliciting only $500 donations would generate enough money to realistically run a U.S. Senate campaign.
Everyone would have to participate in the deal — whether it followed Dill’s or King’s recommendations — in order for it to work well. It doesn’t look like that will happen.
Maybe, then, they will be open to another idea: If they really are worried about the influence of anonymous donors, they each can agree to appoint someone within their campaign to be a super-PAC watchdog.
Whenever an advertisement funded by anonymous donors spreads misinformation or has a caustic message, the candidates should spurn it publicly, immediately and widely.
The difficulty with super-PACs is that candidates don’t have control over what they do. And the Senate race in Maine has six candidates — plus write-in Ben Pollard — making it difficult to create an agreement that doesn’t handicap someone because of financial differences.
But each campaign has a way to get out its message, and it can use that power to make sure people know when information has been released that was backed by anonymous donors. At least then the candidates will be making their point clear that they want what a majority of polled voters say they want: names attached to dollars.