Outside Money Favors Begich, But He Assails It

The U.S. Senate  this week blocked a constitutional amendment aimed at reversing Citizens United. That’s the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations, unions and associations to spend unlimited amounts on elections as long as these so-called “outside groups” don’t coordinate with campaigns. Sen. Mark Begich, in a close battle for re-election, has railed against outside spending in his race. He voted for the amendment, although so far the outside spending has tilted heavily in his favor.

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If you watch TV, you’ve seen the ads. They’re from groups like Put Alaska First PAC, a pro-Begich SuperPAC that’s bought more TV time than any other group trying to influence the race, aside from the candidates themselves. Alaskans have also seen ads from Americans for Prosperity, the biggest advertiser nationally for Republican congressional candidates.

By the end of last month, some 35,000 political ads had aired in Alaska, for or against Sen. Mark Begich and challenger Dan Sullivan, at a cost of about $4 million. More than half of those TV spots were bought by outside  groups, according to analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, and those are about evenly split between the two candidates.  But the spending on airtime tells only part of the story. Outside money in the Alaska race is approaching $14 million, according to filings at the Federal Elections Commission, and that money is running nearly 2-to-1 for Begich.

One of the biggest spenders, for example, is a national group called League of Conservation Voters, which has spent more than $1 million to help Begich, and none of it has gone to airtime.

“No, we’re really focused on the grassroots, connecting with Alaskans. That’s our primary strategy and that’s what we’re doing through election day,” said Andy Moderow, treasurer of a group called Alaska SalmonPAC that’s doing fieldwork with that million dollars from League of Conservation voters.

SalmonPAC has 30 staffers and is going door-to-door in the Anchorage bowl, supporting Begich. Other Outside groups, on both sides of the race, are spending millions more for things like phone banks, polling and online ads.

It may be running in his favor, but Begich says outside money is corrosive and drowns out citizen participation, so he wants it gone.

“Well because I’ve always disagreed with what the Supreme Court did on Citizens United, even before I was in the races we’re in today,” Begich said. “I think Citizens United that defines corporations as people is the most ridiculous court ruling I’ve ever seen.”

One of the principles of that case is that corporations have rights under the First Amendment, as people do, to make their voices heard in elections. Begich voted this week for a constitutional amendment allowing Congress and the states to restrict corporate spending in elections. The amendment failed on a procedural vote. Begich says if he’s re-elected, he’ll continue to press for campaign finance reform.

Mike Anderson, a spokesman for Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, says Begich could have kept outside money out of this race but he refused Sullivan’s offer in June of a mutual pledge to pay a penalty for every outside ad that runs for their benefit.

“Mark Begich can still sign it,” Anderson said. “All it takes is his signature, and it would take these third-party unlimited outside groups spending off the airwaves and allow, you know, the candidate to speak directly to Alaskans, because I think that’s what they want.”

Anderson didn’t specify how Sullivan would vote on a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United, but he said Sullivan would be skeptical of it.

“I think what’s apparent is Outside spending has increased in recent years and despite Sen. Begich’s assertions, Congress isn’t in a position to decrease this influence,” Anderson said.

The Begich campaign, back in June, dismissed the pledge as a gimmick. He says he wants a systemic solution for all elections, not just his.