Rep. Shelly Berkley today called on her opponent for U.S. Senate, Dean Heller, to agree to renounce all outside spending in their high-profile contest.
Heller’s campaign consultant, Mike Slanker, swiftly rejected the overture, however.
Berkley’s “Free Nevada Pact” is similar to an agreement proposed by Republican Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and agreed to by his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren.
Essentially, it works like this: Both candidates agree to renounce all third-party ads (including those from super-PACs, 527 groups, political parties, labor unions and business groups). If a third-party group does air an ad on behalf of one of the candidates, his or her opponent agrees to pay 60 percent of the cost of that ad to charity. (Thus, third-party spending actually hurts a candidate.)
Berkley said the pact was a response to the increase in politically corrosive outside dollars. In the 2010 Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle, third-party spending reached more than $14 million on both sides.
“These so-called super-PACs, funded by third-parties like self-interested millionaires and billionaires and profit-hungry corporations are overpowering the voices of Nevada voters and damaging the democratic process,” Berkley said. “What I’m saying is, join with me, Dean. Let the voters of the state of Nevada make this decision without outside influence of millions and millions of dollars pouring into this state with negative ads where there’s no accountability and no way to track the money.”
Berkley cleverly heaped praise on Heller’s record of election reform as a way to show he was amenable to transparency in the past. “Throughout my opponent’s career, Dean Heller has been a leader on transparency and accountability in the elections process,” Berkley said. “As secretary of state, he spoke eloquently about the importance of disclosure of candidates and groups, about restoring public confidence in the political process and about the legal and moral obligations for fair and honest campaigns.”
In background materials, Berkley’s campaign unearthed Heller quotes in support of campaign finance disclosure. (One of the arguments against super-PAC and independent expenditure groups is that the source of their funding is occluded.) In 2000, for example, Heller (then secretary of state) said flatly in an infamous anonymous flier case that “voters have a right to know who is financing campaign material. Anonymous political literature that seeks only to damage an individual’s character threatens the integrity of the electoral process.”
But neither the praise of Heller’s past stances nor the appeal to good government were successful. Less than two hours after Berkley’s news conference proposing the pact, Heller campaign consultant Mike Slanker released this statement:
“Yet another sideshow in the Shelley Berkley Campaign Circus. ‘Free Nevada?’ Three quarters of her contributions come from outside Nevada. If the Congresswoman is willing to send her out-of-state money back, we are willing to discuss her pact.”
(That’s a no, by the way.)
But Slanker well knows that campaign contributions made to candidates are limited and subject to full disclosure, as opposed to super-PAC money. In fact, Slanker himself once complained about outside group spending. In 2006, working on Heller’s Republican primary race for Congress, Slanker denounced outside spending by the group Club for Growth on behalf of Sharron Angle.
“The Club for Growth bought the race in Michigan, and they are spending $1 million to try to buy it for Angle here,” Slanker said then. “It is a sad commentary on representative government when people can be elected who are bought and paid for by people outside their district.”
Indeed, although every congressional campaign accepts money from people who don’t live in the district.
Berkley’s campaign was understated in its response, a sign that she’s very serious about trying to get Heller to agree to sign the pact. Jessica Mackler, Berkley’s campaign manager said this:
“Limited, fully transparent donations to a campaign are completely different from the secretive third party organizations that are running attack ads funded by unlimited corporate, undisclosed and billionaire’s donations. We again ask Senator Heller to sit down to discuss the pact in good faith.”
I’m guessing this is going nowhere, for two main reasons. First, Heller spent much of last week being led by Berkley. (He was forced to denounce comments by radio host Rush Limbaugh after Berkley focused on the issue, and she taunted him for not signing a pledge to excise Limbaugh from the airwaves.) In any campaign, it is never a good day when you are being led by your opposition.
Second, the sheer amount of money now available to candidates—as well as the high-profile of Nevada’s Senate race, which guarantees outside groups’ interest—make signing the pledge a bad tactical idea. Who would want to turn down millions in campaign advertising that you don’t have to raise or pay for yourself? It’s not a tough decision, especially when the argument in favor of it amounts to “good government.”
UPDATE: Here’s my report that aired on Wednesday on 8NewsNow: