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Kennedy calls for ‘People’s Pledge’ to limit outside money in Senate campaign

Joe Kennedy III.
Joe Kennedy III. Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III challenged Senator Edward J. Markey and the two other Democrats running for Senate in 2020 to sign a so-called People’s Pledge to limit outside political groups from dumping money into what’s shaping up to be a divisive intraparty battle.

“This election will be decided by the people of Massachusetts. It’s their voices that should drive our debates, focus our agendas and set the terms of this race,” Kennedy said in a press release announcing the move.

Markey’s campaign “will review the proposal,” said senior campaign advisor John Walsh in a statement.

Asked what has changed since 2013, when Markey pushed his GOP opponent to adopt a similar pledge during a special election for Senate, campaign spokeswoman Mara Dolan would only say, “That’s our statement.”

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The effort signals that Kennedy feels confident he can raise plenty of money on his own as he seeks to oust Markey. It also comes just days after a major environmental group pledged to raise $5 million on a campaign to bolster Markey’s reelection bid.

Kennedy also will try to use the pledge to play some defense. The four-term congressman will push to have the agreement preclude spending by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said a person involved in the Kennedy campaign.

The Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm, the committee is backing Markey, raising the possibility it could spend money on ads during the Massachusetts primary.

Kennedy will argue that expanding the pledge to committee spending is an appropriate limit on outside influences in a Massachusetts race, as well as a way to ensure that party resources aren’t spent on a race where the Senate seat is ultimately expected to remain in Democratic hands, regardless of who wins the primary.

Kennedy has taken a lot of heat from fellow Democrats, privately and publicly, who warn the blockbuster primary between him and Markey could divert energy and campaign contributions away from much tougher races Democrats need to win to retain their narrow House majority and gain control of the Senate in 2020.

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Adhereing to the pledge, however, would keep Kennedy from reaping big benefits from the $2.8 million in the still-open campaign account of his father, former representative Joseph P. Kennedy II. Campaign finance specialists have said that the elder Kennedy could legally spend cash from his campaign account on television ads and mailers supporting his son as long as he didn’t coordinate directly with the campaign.

Markey has embraced the People’s Pledge before. In the 2013 special election race to fill the Senate seat that opened up when John Kerry became secretary of state, the Malden Democrat called such a pledge “key” so voters know who is supporting each candidate, since outside groups do not have to disclose their donors. He repeatedly criticized his Republican opponent, Gabriel E. Gomez, for declining to sign the pledge.

In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling overturned federal campaign finance limits on so-called independent expenditures made on behalf of candidates, leading to a boom in super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money and then spend it to support or criticize political candidates, so long as they don’t directly coordinate with a candidate.

Citizens United also opened the floodgates for so-called dark money, by enabling certain politically active nonprofits, which aren’t required to disclose their funding sources, and shadowy corporate entities to also spend as much as they want on elections. In many cases, this dark money flows into super PACs, which must disclose their donors but don’t have to verify the original source of funds funneled to them by dark money groups.

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The Kennedy campaign said it reached out to the other campaigns in the race Tuesday and asked to meet to set terms in the coming weeks. Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and businessman Steve Pemberton are also running.

The other two challengers quickly accepted the proposal — while also using it as an opportunity to criticize the candidate who proposed it.

“Of course I support blocking any outside spending in this race. But I am disappointed that Congressman Kennedy and Senator Markey seem only interested in recycling old gimmicks when it’s convenient for them,” said Liss-Riordan.

Pemberton also agreed to sign the pledge while accusing Kennedy of hypocrisy.

“Voters are getting more and more frustrated with insider politicians who suddenly ‘see the light’ on special interest money when it suits their immediate needs,” he said.

Both Liss-Riordan and Pemberton criticized Kennedy for taking money over his career from special interest groups. Earlier this month, Kennedy said he would no longer take money from corporate political action committees. He will still accept PAC contributions from labor and other groups.

The Kennedy team said it will propose terms similar to the pledges agreed to in the 2012 Senate contest between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, as well as in the 2013 Senate primary that Markey won. In those cases, candidates agreed that any time a third-party political group ran an ad on TV, radio, or digital platforms, or sent a direct mailing, the candidate benefiting from the expenditure would donate half of its cost to a charity of the opponent’s choosing.

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The pact Warren and Brown signed in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. A 2013 analysis by Massachusetts Common Cause, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform, concluded that despite the Warren-Brown contest being the most expensive congressional race of 2012, the pledge drastically reduced outside spending compared with other expensive races that year. The analysis found that it slashed the relative influence of wealthy donors to the benefit of small-dollar donors, and also led to far less negative advertising overall.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com.