Brown-Warren Pact Undone as Outside Groups See Loopholes

Massachusetts Senate Candidates Brown and Warren Debate
Supporters of both Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown wait for the candidates to arrive for a debate on September 20, 2012. Photograph by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Independent political groups are finding ways around the pledge by Republican Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren to keep outside money out of their hard-fought U.S. Senate campaign.

The League of Conservation Voters, Americans for Tax Reform and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies have spent more than $1 million on robo-calls, direct mail and door-to-door canvassing in the last three weeks trying to influence what political strategists say is a pivotal race in the fight for control of the chamber.

The groups are working in the state even though the two candidates signed a pledge in January announcing that they didn’t want outside groups advertising in their race. The Brown-Warren agreement says that, in the case of an independent political group spending money advertising on behalf of one candidate, the beneficiary has three days to use campaign funds to donate half the amount spent to charity.

The three groups aren’t spending on television ads, so they aren’t violating the pledge, said Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters.

“We did not break the pledge,” he said. “The pledge doesn’t cover mail.”

Direct Mail

The league has already spent more than $500,000 on direct mail and door-to-door canvassing and plans to spend twice that before Election Day.

In one of its mailings, the League of Conservation Voters accused Brown of taking contributions from oil companies and voting to protect their tax breaks.

The brochure included a photo of Brown and his pickup truck with its bed filled with cash. “Scott Brown voted 3 times to give your tax dollars to big oil and got a truckload of money from them,” it read.

Crossroads has spent about $50,000 on robo-calls to Massachusetts voters, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The call, a recording of which was posted on the Mother Jones magazine’s website, warns voters that “a vote for Warren is a vote for the same kind of government failure that got us into the situation we’re in today.” It then says Warren would cut Medicare benefits.

Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio didn’t respond to an e-mail request for more information.

Tax Pledge

Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates for lower taxes, has spent about $400,000 on at least three separate mailings opposing Warren starting on Sept. 19, according to FEC records. ATR, headed by Grover Norquist, urges candidates to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Brown has signed it while Warren hasn’t, according to the group’s website.

John Kartch, a spokesman for ATR, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Spokesmen for Warren, 63, and Brown, 53, didn’t respond to calls and e-mail seeking comment on whether these political activities violated their campaign pledge.

The actions by the outside groups aren’t surprising given the limits to the candidates’ pledge, said Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based group that advocates for transparency in elections.

‘Entirely Predictable’

“The use of media not covered by the agreement was entirely predictable when the agreement was signed,” Ryan said. “It was pretty narrow in its coverage.”

Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and architect of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Brown signed the agreement, known as The People’s Pledge, on Jan. 23. It covers any “broadcast (including radio), cable, or satellite advertising, or online advertising” in support of or against either candidate.

Brown, on his website, says that he first proposed the idea of discouraging outside money during the 2010 special election against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to fill the seat vacated when Senator Edward M. Kennedy died.

He revived the proposal in the current campaign “after Crossroads began running an anti-Elizabeth Warren ad,” the campaign’s website says.

Gohringer, however, said Brown made the proposal after the League of Conservation Voters spent $2 million on ads last year criticizing his environmental record.

Poll Decline

“We did issue advertising more than a year ago on Scott Brown’s record and he saw his poll numbers come down substantially,” Gohringer said. “That sort of facilitated the pledge.”

Since Brown and Warren signed the pledge, it’s been broken only once, in March. Brown donated $34,000 to charity after a group called the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality, a Washington-based group that supports Republicans, ran ads in his favor.

The two candidates have spent a combined $22.4 million to air more than 27,000 television ads since April, according to data compiled by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, an ad tracker. No other groups have done television advertising in their Senate campaign, according to the data.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Ryan said he’s surprised at how effective the pledge has been. “I was far more cynical when the idea was being discussed and kicked around,” he said.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said outside groups such as Crossroads and the League of Conservation Voters are run by seasoned political strategists who will find a way to influence the important races regardless of what the candidates want.

“These groups are going to do everything they can,” she said. “It’s a total violation of the spirit and intention of the pledge. But they didn’t sign anything.”

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