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Republican Senate candidates err in rejecting the people’s pledge

Last year’s high-profile Massachusetts Senate race produced a clear winner: the voters. Thanks to an agreement between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren that effectively kept super PACs out of the race, Bay State residents were spared the worst campaign practices of the post-Citizens United era. The race still got plenty nasty, but it was an above-board fight.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that none of the three Republican candidates running for Senate this time around is willing to renew the bipartisan “people’s pledge.” GOP candidates Gabriel Gomez, Dan Winslow, and Michael Sullivan have all declined to commit to another agreement in their primary, potentially opening the door to super PAC involvement in the special election to replace John Kerry. It’s a bad move for the state — and a very bad move for the Republicans.

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The Warren-Brown pledge wasn’t just successful because it kept super PAC ads off the air, although that’s nothing to scoff at. It also imposed more accountability on the race. When the campaign got heated, candidates had to take responsibility for attacks lobbed at their opponent, and couldn’t hide behind third-party groups. The pact also protected the public interest, ensuring the eventual winner wouldn’t owe anything to super PAC donors.

In rejecting the pledge this time, the Republicans are claiming it would put them at a competitive disadvantage against Edward Markey or Stephen Lynch, the two Democratic candidates. That attitude seriously misreads what happened last year. Brown didn’t lose the election because of the people’s pledge; his campaign was extremely well-funded. And with no other Senate elections to compete for the attention of national Republican donors this year, it seems unlikely that the eventual GOP nominee for the remainder of Kerry’s term will have any trouble raising cash by traditional means, either.

If anything, it’s walking away from the clean-elections precedent established last year that’s likely to hurt the GOP. Both Democratic contenders have agreed to the pledge. If Republicans don’t join them, voters will reasonably wonder why the candidates can’t do without super PACs and their coterie of billionaire donors. And they will wonder who and what the candidates will owe, should they win.

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