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Bans on Funding Floated, Scuttled

The political silly season has arrived — sooner than usual.

In several of the nation’s highest-profile Senate races, candidates have traded proposals to ban involvement by outside groups, including national party organizations, or to cap total candidate spending — with little expectation that these offers will be accepted.

In South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Carolina, Democrats have offered proposals by which both major-party candidates would tell outside groups, including the national party committees, to stay out of their elections.

Each one was rejected, which allowed both sides to claim the moral high ground without having much practical impact.

“Most of this is pretty transparent political jousting,” said Jim Jordan, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Not too many politicians advocate agreements which their opponents might possibly accept that are politically disadvantageous.”

One Republican Senate strategist agreed, calling the proposals “hogwash.”

“Every campaign is receptive and thankful that they get” support from outside interest groups, the Republican added. “It’s not as if a Senate committee is going to stay out and let [a candidate] lose the race on their own.”

The movement to appear independent from outside groups has gained momentum over the past decade as more and more well-funded interests groups — such as the Club for Growth, EMILY’s List, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the League of Conservation Voters — have grown increasingly willing to inject themselves into the handful of top-tier Senate and House races around the country.

“Ten years ago these discussions didn’t even occur,” said Dick Wadhams, who is managing former Rep. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) campaign against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

One Democratic strategist involved in a high-profile Senate race said that “every Democratic campaign knows that Republicans have sent marching orders to their candidates to leave the door open for outside interests to come in.”

The proposed ad bans “are playing to the reality of the situation,” the source added.

Although Democrats were seemingly put at a wide disadvantage with the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, because the measure banned the raising and spending of soft money by national parties, the party has largely held its own in fundraising so far this cycle.

Historically, Democrats have been more eager to make proposals to block out independent groups, but in principle either side could benefit, particularly now that soft-money 527 groups such as America Coming Together and the Media Fund have raised tens of millions of dollars that will end up aiding Democrats. On the other hand, almost all of that money is being spent with the presidential race foremost in mind, and it remains unclear whether soft-money spending will trickle down to House and Senate contests.

The South Dakota Senate race provides perhaps the clearest example of this modest-proposal gamesmanship.

On June 15, Daschle proposed a ban on all third-party advertising in the state, citing the millions of dollars spent by these groups on the 2002 contest between Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and Thune.

The Daschle proposal was a facsimile of an offer Thune made in last cycle’s race. After an unproductive meeting in Washington, D.C., between Johnson and Thune to discuss the logistics, the candidates scrapped the deal. As a result, tens of millions of dollars were spent, mostly on extensive ad campaigns in the sparsely populated state, with Johnson winning by just 524 votes.

Wadhams said Thune’s experience in 2002 led him to reject Daschle’s proposal this time around. “He made an effort two years ago to set the stage for third-party groups to not feel welcome in South Dakota and it didn’t work,” said Wadhams.

Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer said the proposal was “not a gimmick in any way, shape or form.”

He added that Daschle had “unilaterally” told third-party groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to stay out of the state.

Thune counteroffered with a $10 million spending cap on the race, which Daschle promptly rejected.

As of March 31, Daschle had already spent $6.5 million on the contest this cycle. Thune has disbursed just $350,000.

Wadhams said that Daschle’s refusal to accept the spending limit cast his own “so-called pledge as hollow.”

While the back and forth in South Dakota has garnered the most press attention, similar scenarios have played out in North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Democrat Erskine Bowles, now making his second bid in as many cycles for a Tar Heel State Senate seat, offered a deal to Rep. Richard Burr (R) to keep all outside groups away from the state for the duration of the campaign.

Bowles’ proposal came on the heels of a $600,000 media buy on behalf of Burr by Americans for Job Security.

Burr said he would agree to the pact if Bowles pledged not to spend any of his own money on the race; in 2002 Bowles donated nearly $7 million from his own pocket to fund his race against now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R).

Bowles agreed to the counteroffer, pledging not to donate any more than the $600,000 he had previously put into the campaign.

The Burr team said the prior donation was in violation of the proposal, and it was scrapped.

In Oklahoma, Rep. Brad Carson (D) sent a letter in mid-June to his three potential Republican opponents asking them to “show the voters of Oklahoma we are dedicated to making sure that … they will hear directly from each of us and our ideas on how to renew Oklahoma’s promise — not mudslinging by outside interest groups who don’t represent Oklahoma or our values.”

It was summarily rejected by the campaigns of former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony and former 2nd district Rep. Tom Coburn.

Coburn pointed out that Carson faces a primary challenge of his own and said he would not respond to the offer until the party nominees are chosen.

The Club for Growth is currently running ads on Coburn’s behalf in the state.

Brad Luna, communications director for Carson, said the campaign “honestly did think there was a chance [the proposal] would be accepted.”

“We thought it would be a good chance for other Republicans to sign onto the pledge knowing that the Club for Growth is knocking on the door,” Luna added.