Pledge Holds Attack Ads At Bay In Mass. Senate Race

May 6, 2012
Originally published on May 6, 2012 10:38 am

It was no big surprise when outside groups started spending millions of dollars on attack ads in the high-stakes U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

Republican strategist Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS superPAC aired spots highlighting Warren's ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying she "sides with extreme left protests who support radical redistribution of wealth and violence."

Left-leaning groups like the League of Conservation Voters accused Brown of "repeatedly voting against protecting our environment and public health."

But in January, the biting back-and-forth came to an abrupt end when the two candidates signed what they called the "People's Pledge."

Under the pact, a candidate who benefits from a third-party ad has to pay a penalty to a charity chosen by the other. As the candidates wrote in a letter to third-party groups: "Your spending will damage the candidate you intend to help."

The deterrent worked; outside groups ceased their fire and the contest took a sharp turn from high noon to high horse.

"I'm proud to say we're serving as a model for the rest of the nation," boasted a Brown radio ad. Instead of the rhetoric sinking lower and lower, the candidates were trying to one up each other in political piety.

Brown claimed credit for having the idea of the pact. Warren said his deal had "loopholes Karl Rove could drive a tank through," and she insisted she's the one who made it real.

When the first ad violating the pact aired in March by a group supporting Brown, Warren was indignant. But not to be outdone, when it came time to pay his fine, Brown wrote a check for double the agreed upon amount.

"The tap dance is certainly who is squeakier cleaner, " says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University. "They're both showing they are sort of model citizens, and both campaigns are being very cautious, because no one wants to be seen as the bad guy in the race."

The improved tone of the campaign, as well as prime-time TV, came much to the relief of voters — and channel surfers — like Martina Jackson, a Democratic activist in Newton, Mass.

"It is amazing. It's much, much better," she says. "It's relatively civilized, rather than all that mud thrown at each other. I don't miss it!"

On the other hand, one can only imagine ad makers lamenting lost opportunities — especially in a week like this one.

With news that Brown, who's ardently opposed to President Obama's health care law, is using it to get insurance for his adult daughter — and stories about Warren claiming to be a minority because of a great-great-great grandmother who she says was Native American — "we would be buried in mud," says Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"You can envision an ad of Elizabeth Warren in wigwam," says Berry. "Or wearing a wig, depending on how nasty [they] wanted to be."

But instead, since any such ads would have to come from the campaigns themselves, the negative ads never appeared. The candidates were relatively restrained, and it all amounted to just a minor dust-up, impressing even the early skeptics, who doubted such a nuclear disarmament would ever stick.

One local newspaper called it a near miracle. To others, the miracle remains to be seen.

"I don't think it's gonna stick " says Scott Hibbard, 41, a chef from Roxbury. "In due time, there will be some negative ads. It's way early. And once [the race] starts sliding toward one side or the other, the other one is going to have to do something, and that's when the mud starts to fly."

Indeed, the ceasefire depends on the cooperation of outside groups, and many are already restless on the sidelines.

When the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality, for example, was asked to pull its ad in March, chairman Jeff Loyd did so only reluctantly.

"We disagree with the purpose of the pledge because we wish to exercise our freedoms and legal right to support anybody we want," Loyd says.

Republican strategist Todd Domke predicts: "At some point [independent groups] will probably say, 'Forget the People's Pledge ... We're people, too. It's time to go to war.'"

Domke says it's unrealistic to expect independent groups to sit on their hands while control of the Senate may hang in the balance.

"I don't think I'm being cynical in saying it's just a matter of time before [outside groups] decide to thrill their donors by launching attack ads that will make national news," Domke says. "They're not in this to be idealistic or to make Massachusetts a model for civility. They're in this to win and to be influential."

As far as that "model for the rest of the nation" goes, so far, the few attempts to follow the lead of Brown and Warren — for example in Montana and Virginia — have failed.

"It would be wonderful if this was the beginning of a trend," says Berkovitz. "But I don't have my hopes up."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Massachusetts, there's a high-stakes, high-profile U.S. Senate race that's already making history - in a way. Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren have made an unprecedented pledge meant to try to curb the influence of superPACs and outside money in politics. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, it seems to be working so far.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It was no big surprise in a race like this one that outside groups started running attack ads from the get-go.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests.

SMITH: The airwaves were flooding with millions of dollars in ads from the conservative Crossroads GPS to left-leaning groups like the League of Conservation Voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Brown voted repeatedly against protecting our environment and public health.

SMITH: But in January, everything changed...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Enough's enough.

SMITH: When the two candidates signed what they called the People's Pledge, agreeing that any candidate who benefits from a third-party ad would have to pay a penalty to charity. The deterrent worked. Outside groups ceased fire and the contest took a sharp turn from high noon to high horse.

SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: I'm proud to say we're serving as a model for the rest of the nation.

SMITH: Both Brown and Warren tried to score political points for their piety, both claiming credit for the agreement and vowing to respect it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...the first violation of the People's Pledge...

SMITH: When the first offender popped up, benefitting Brown, Warren was indignant.

ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I'm just disappointed. I'd been so hopeful.

SMITH: Brown's campaign accused Warren of, quote, "self-righteousness and moral superiority." But then, not to be outdone when it came to pay his fine he wrote a check for double.

TOBE BERKOVITZ: The tap dance is certainly who is squeakier cleaner. And they're both showing they're sort of model citizens.

SMITH: Boston University Professor Tobe Berkovitz says the People's Pledge has improved the tone of the race and of primetime TV, much to the relief of voters, like Martina Jackson of Newton.

MARTINA JACKSON: It is amazing. I mean, it's much, much better. It's relatively civilized, rather than just mud and whatever thrown at one other. I don't miss it. May I just go on record as saying I don't miss it.

SMITH: On the other hand, one can only imagine ad makers, lamenting lost opportunities, especially in a week like this one.

JEFFREY BERRY: If not for this agreement, we would be buried in mud.

SMITH: Tufts Professor Jeffrey Berry says ad makers would have had a field day with news that Brown, who's ardently opposed to President Obama's health care act, is also using it to get insurance for his adult daughter, and stories about Warren claiming to be a minority because of a great-great-great grandmother who she says was Native American.

BERRY: You can envision an ad of Elizabeth Warren in wigwam or wearing a wig, you know, what I mean, depending on how nasty that you wanted to be.

SMITH: But instead, since any such ads would have to come from the campaigns themselves, so far it's closer to a relatively minor dust-up than a full explosion, impressing even the early skeptics who doubted such a nuclear disarmament would ever stick. One local newspaper called it a near miracle. But to others, the miracle remains to be seen.

SCOTT HIBBARD: I don't think it's going to stick. In due time, there will be some negative ads.

SMITH: That's 41-year-old Scott Hibbard from Roxbury.

HIBBARD: It's way early. And once it starts sliding to one side or the other, the other one's going to have to do something. And that's when the mud starts to fly.

SMITH: Indeed, the cease-fire depends on outside groups' cooperation, and they are already restless on the sidelines. When the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality, for example, was asked to pull its ad in March, Chairman Jeff Loyd did so only reluctantly.

JEFF LOYD: We disagree with the purpose of the pledge because we wish to exercise our freedoms and legal right to support, you know, anybody we want.

TODD DOMKE: At some point they'll probably say forget the People's Pledge. We're people too. It's time to go to war.

SMITH: Republican strategist Todd Domke says it's simply too much to expect independent groups to sit on their hands while control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

DOMKE: I don't think I'm being cynical in saying it's just a matter of time before they decide to thrill their donors by launching attack ads that will make national news. They're not in this to be idealistic or to make Massachusetts a model for civility. They're in this to win and to be influential.

SMITH: As far as that model of civility, so far, the few attempts to follow Massachusetts' lead - for example in Montana and Virginia - have failed. Again, Tobe Berkovitz.

BERKOVITZ: It would be wonderful if this was the beginning of a trend. The skies would part. We'd hear wonderful, sweet music in all 50 states, but I don't have my hopes up.

SMITH: Brown and Warren may not have totally divorced outside money from politics but you might call it a trial separation that's making the rest of the family pretty happy not to have to listen to all that yelling - at least today. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.