One of the greatest surprises of last year’s Senate election was the dog that didn’t bark. The two candidates, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, reached an optimistic agreement early in the race designed to keep super PAC money out of the election. Such vows have failed in the past, and many observers expected the so-called “people’s pledge” to collapse in the heat of a close campaign. Shockingly, it worked.
Now, with another election coming to replace John Kerry, the shadowboxing has already begun between Brown, the presumptive Republican candidate, and the early Democratic front-runner, Edward J. Markey. As the race gains steam, the candidates should build on last year’s precedent by renewing the people’s pledge, with an eye toward making the pledge an accepted — and expected — part of Massachusetts politics.
Super PACs were allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent cases, which lifted restrictions on corporations and unions spending vast amounts in campaigns. Though their contributions are still in theory transparent, the chicanery last year over concealed donors, donations structured to become public only after the election, and other loopholes showed how much the ruling has undermined the principle of clean elections.
Keeping super PAC money out of Massachusetts isn’t just about sparing residents an even greater onslaught of negative political ads — though that is a nice side benefit. It’s about preventing the state’s next senator from coming into office already beholden to special interests that may or may not be known to voters. As the only statewide balloting on the horizon for the spring, the special election to replace Kerry will be a unique magnet for super PACs and special interests of all types.
But as it was last year, when both Senate candidates were national stars capable of ample fundraising on their own, it should be easier for Brown and Markey to reach such an agreement, if they indeed end up as the candidates. Both will probably be able to raise plenty of conventional contributions on their own. But that doesn’t make renewing the agreement less important. Maintaining last year’s precedent isn’t just about this election. It’s about keeping the bar high for the next one.