Incumbent Democratic Congressman John Tierney borrowed a play from Republican Sen. Scott Brown yesterday, calling for an agreement to limit the impact of outside money on the Massachusetts 6th Congressional race.
Tierney sent a letter asking Republican opponent Richard Tisei to sign a "People's Pledge" identical to the one signed by Brown and Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren in January. The pledge financially penalizes a campaign for any advertisement run by a third-party group, such as a super PAC.
"This pledge prevents these outside groups from airing independent expenditures on television, radio or the Internet supporting or attacking either candidate," Tierney said in his letter. "If they do, the candidate who benefited from the ad has to pay 50 percent of the ad's cost to a charity chosen by their opponent, so there is a powerful enforcement mechanism."
Tierney's proposal was met with skepticism and criticism from the Tisei camp, which in late March suggested a handshake agreement to limit the amount of political action committee money accepted by each campaign.
Tisei's proposal gave the congressman four options: end all PAC contributions, end all PAC contributions from outside Massachusetts, limit PAC contributions to 20 percent of all contributions, or limit all donations to those coming from Massachusetts — but did not mention super PACs.
Calling it "confusing" and a campaign tactic, the Tierney camp at the time said it would not respond until Tisei revealed how he would have voted on Paul Ryan's budget passed by House Republicans. Ryan's Prosperity PAC has donated $2,500 to Tisei's campaign.
"We heard the sound of crickets chirping," Tisei said in a statement. "Now, after being outraised two quarters in a row, John Tierney is showing signs of genuine concern."
To be clear, the campaigns are proposing two very different things.
"He's talking about one thing, and we're talking about something else," said Paul Moore, Tisei's campaign manager.
Tierney's letter seeks to impose limits on the expenditures of "third-party organizations — including but not limited to individuals, corporations, 527 organizations, 501(c) organizations, super PACs, and national and state party committees."
Tisei's proposal speaks specifically about PACs but says nothing about super PACs, which were created after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted limits on how much money individuals and corporations can spend influencing political campaigns. Super PACs cannot directly donate money to a candidate, nor can they be directly influenced by a candidate, but they can spend unlimited sums on the candidate's behalf. Donors to super PACs do not have to be disclosed until well after the election, and in some cases not at all.
Traditional PACs, which have been around for decades, have a contribution limit of $5,000 and have strict public disclosure rules governed by the Federal Election Commission.
"This is not apples and oranges; this is apples and orangutans," said Matt Robison, Tierney's campaign manager.
The Tisei campaign called Tierney's proposal "very incomplete."
"We'll talk, but there will never be an agreement between us that doesn't include (Tierney) limiting the union money that can come in and save him," Moore said. An agreement "would have to include all outside money. You have to include the full picture. ... Richard Tisei will not tie one and two hands behind his back while John Tierney does anything he wants."
Tisei has outraised Tierney each of the last two quarters and has relied less on PACs than his opponent.
Tisei raised about $321,000 from individual donors last quarter, while getting only $33,300 from political action committees. Tierney raised about $208,300 from individuals, while taking in $116,700 in funds from PACs.
The vast majority of those PAC donations came from out of state. More than $100,000, or 87 percent, of PAC money donated to Tierney came from outside Massachusetts, while $26,500, or about 80 percent, of Tisei's PAC donations did.
Because of the rules on disclosure, super PAC spending is far harder to track, and it isn't clear how much super PAC money has been spent thus far trying to influence the 6th District race. National data suggest that super PACs have a far greater impact than PACs. Super PACs have already spent almost $99 million this election season, compared with about $18 million by corporations, unions, individual people and other groups, according to the website opensecrets.org.
"We hope they will sign it," Robison said but admitted that he is skeptical. (In his March proposal), Mr. Tisei seemed to be expressing an honest interest in limiting outside money in this campaign, and we take him seriously. This (Brown/Warren agreement) is by far the most serious, well-regarded action taken in the country so far, so we hope they will join us in this."