Outside money ban in Massachusetts Senate race is working, but at what price?

ByABC News
July 24, 2012, 6:24 AM

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What's one way to blunt the effects of outside interest groups on politics? Ban them. That's what Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren did in their Massachusetts Senate race. The two candidates struck a unique deal in January (pdf) to penalize one another if any outside group bought advertising to influence their race--and it has worked. Maybe too well. Consultants and political observers now question whether the ban has come at an electoral price.

Brown was the driving force behind the agreement, dubbed the "People's Pledge." After weathering a negative special election campaign against Martha Coakley in 2010 and then facing attacks from the League of Conservation Voters and the League of Women Voters in his race against Warren in 2011, Brown lobbied hard for the arrangement. When Warren, a Harvard Law professor and consumer advocate, agreed in Jan. 2012 to a pact requiring each candidate to pay penalties to charity if outside groups advertised for them or against their opponent, the move was viewed as a coup for Brown who held a 2-1 cash advantage.

But since then, Warren has established herself as perhaps the most prolific Senate fundraiser in the country and became mired in controversy over her claimed Native American ancestry. Consultants in the state say these factors add up to potential regrets from Brown backers and frustration from super PACs and other third-party groups.

"They're champing at the bit from the outside," Tony Cignoli, a Massachusetts-based political consultant who works mostly with Democrats but has clients from all political parties, told Yahoo News. "What we're hearing from a lot of the consultants in both camps... is that there is so much at stake in Massachusetts with this particular race, it's very difficult for outsiders to stay out."

The controversy over Warren's heritage--she has provided no documentation to prove her 1/32 Cherokee heritage, but she and collegiate officials deny that it offered her any employment advantages--provided the first major example of a missed opportunity for outside groups in this race. Brown's campaign has chosen not to run any ads on this topic and outside groups can't pick up the slack.

Howie Carr, who hosts a conservative talk show popular in New England and writes a column for the Boston Herald, says he wishes Brown hadn't embraced the pact.

"I think it would have been better if Scott hadn't agreed to it, the way things worked out with the Indian stuff," Carr said. "It would have been nice to have some people come in and bang her over the head with the falseness of her claims to be an Indian."

Many political observers in the state agree that were it not for the outside money ban, the race's tone and topics of discussion would likely have been vastly different.

"If those outside groups had been able to launch on that issue, they would have created such misperception," Cignoli said of the heritage controversy. "Warren would have had more difficulty continuing staying on message."

Other conservatives, however, disagree. They say that the Cherokee story received plenty of play in the Massachusetts markets, and that the amount of money coming directly through the campaigns is more than enough for the candidates to make their case without competing with the noise from unaffiliated outside groups.