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Brown-Warren pledge made for cleaner campaign in super PAC era

As expensive and tense as it was, this year’s Senate contest in Massachusetts provided a national model for how other high-profile campaigns can keep outside interest groups from hijacking a campaign. Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren waged the second-most costly Senate race in the country; only Virginia’s involved more total spending. But because of the “people’s pledge” that Brown and Warren signed at the outset of the campaign, super PACs and other outside spending entities stayed off TV airwaves — and the two Massachusetts rivals kept control over their own messages.

Under the pledge, one side had to pay a penalty to charity if an outside ad supported it or attacked the other side. Beyond thwarting TV ad blitzes by unaccountable groups, this pledge encouraged would-be donors to give directly to the Democratic and Republican nominees. In Virginia, where the race produced $82.4 million in spending, the bulk came from outside groups. In Massachusetts, Brown and Warren together raised the overwhelming majority of the $76.7 million spent on the race — and far out-raised their counterparts in other high-profile Senate races.

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There were scattered violations of the pledge. And there were loopholes, of course; the pact didn’t prohibit outside spending on mailers, so supporters of both candidates went wild with them. Even so, Massachusetts voters got more transparency and a more civil race.

This year’s election cycle has been an experiment of sorts; two years ago, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and subsequent legal precedents swept away many past restrictions on campaign speech on First Amendment grounds. Yet in the Brown-Warren race, there were no independent groups grousing from the sidelines that their free speech had been stifled. The largely successful pact shows that, in practice, outside spending in a race generally requires at least the tacit approval of the candidate who’s the intended beneficiary.

Regardless of the outcome, the Massachusetts race is a reminder that, even in the post-Citizens United era, it’s still possible — and desirable — to run a campaign in which each side takes full responsibility for what’s said in its name.

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