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opinion | Joan Vennochi

Will attack-ad pact survive until fall?

You’re Republican Senator Scott Brown. As you face a tough reelection battle in a state that favors Democrats, you must be thinking: What was I thinking when I agreed to ban outside attack ads during my showdown with Elizabeth Warren?

Across the country, groups sympathetic to Republican candidates are pouring millions into a barrage of ads aimed at undermining their Democratic challengers. As reported by Politico.com, the GOP spending goliath American Crossroads and its affiliate group, Crossroads GPS, are set to launch a $4.6 million ad campaign in six competitive Senate races.

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So far, Massachusetts, the setting for the hottest Senate race in the nation, is not one of them. A dearth of outsiders willing to spend money on ads is not the reason; it’s because both candidates agreed to keep third-party ads out of the Bay State. Their campaigns would be powered by ideas, not by outsider kicks to the head.

Now, for Warren and Brown, it’s live by the ban, and maybe die by it.

“It already has changed how the race has played out,” said John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University, who closely monitors political advertising and news coverage. As Carroll sees it so far, “It’s a net plus for Elizabeth Warren.”

Last January, when Warren and Brown announced their no-outside-attack-ad pledge, Brown pronounced it “a great victory for the people of Massachusetts and a bold statement that puts super PACs and other third parties on notice that their interference will not be tolerated.” Calling it “historic,” Warren also warned that both campaigns “will need to be vigilant” to make sure outside groups don’t try to circumvent it.

Brown has paid penalties twice — $36,000 in contributions to a charity of Warren’s choice — when groups ran ads on his behalf.

Their agreement was initially cast as a coup for Brown, who had been outspent 3-to-1 by pro-Warren groups, including one run by former aides to Governor Deval Patrick. In backing the ban, Brown must have believed he could out-raise Warren when it came to direct contributions, so it was worth keeping Democratic money from cascading into Massachusetts through super PACs.

“What happened is the opposite,” said Carroll. “She is out-raising him to some degree.” Meanwhile, Democrats nationally are having trouble raising money for super PACs, as Republicans roll in super PAC cash.

Imagine, for example, what a super PAC could have done with the controversy over Warren’s Native American heritage — from her truthfulness in answering questions about why she listed herself as a minority in a professional registry, to mocking a so-called family recipe, contributed to a “Pow Wow Chow” cookbook, which had its origins in a fancy New York restaurant. While the story played out for weeks in headlines, no whispery voices backed up by scary music hammered it home in ads. Talk about a missed opportunity for Karl Rove & Friends.

Big spending on negative ad buys funded by outside groups is the practical consequence of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court basically said corporations, like people, have First Amendment rights and political advertising is one way of exercising them. The fallout from allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations is so extreme that Supreme Court justices may take a second look at their decision.

As they watch their candidates get swamped by ads funded by Republican-friendly groups, national Democrats are not looking to emulate Massachusetts. Instead, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is begging Democrats to send money ASAP to outside groups. But if Democratic money is used for typical attack dog advertising, it’s hard to see how Democrats can claim the high ground on campaign finance issues.

That makes what happens in Massachusetts interesting and important. It was a gamble for both candidates, and, at this moment, it appears to put Brown at a tactical disadvantage. If he puts his own name on negative attacks, he undermines his “nice guy” image. If he allows outsiders to weigh in despite his agreement with Warren, it becomes a campaign issue.

Their agreement may not hold. The stakes are high, and the race is tight. It’s up to Brown and Warren to pick a battle of issues and ideas over a war of attack ads.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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