Wednesday, March 14, 2012 | 4:05 p.m.
Seeking to both wrest control of her own campaign message and eliminate caustic attack ads backed by often anonymous third party groups, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley called on her Republican opponent Sen. Dean Heller to sign a pact banning outside spending on television ads in the U.S. Senate race.
The pact mimics one signed by the major party candidates in the sharply contested Senate race in Massachusetts. Both races could determine which party controls the Senate next year.
Saying she wants to keep everyone from labor unions and the chamber of commerce to George Soros and Karl Rove out of the Nevada race, Berkley implored Heller to sign the pact.
“As secretary of state, he has spoken eloquently about the importance of full disclosure of candidates and groups, about restoring public confidence in the political process and about the legal and moral obligation of fair and honest campaigning,” Berkley said. “His passion for this issue is compelling. Let’s take a stand together.”
Heller’s camp did not respond kindly.
“Yet another sideshow in the Shelley Berkley campaign circus,” Heller’s senior advisor Mike Slanker said. “Three-quarters of her contributions come from outside of Nevada. If the congresswoman is willing to send her out-of-state money back, we are willing to discuss her pact.”
Berkley’s proposal seemed as much a campaign ploy as a sincere effort to force third-party spending from the race. She did not approach Heller about the pact prior to holding a press conference.
Yet a Democratic operative said she’s serious about keeping outside spending from polluting the race. He noted the public disgust with the onslaught of negative ads and the strategic advantage of both campaigns being able to control their own messaging.
He said the pact was carefully written so as not to antagonize Heller’s camp.
Berkley said neither candidate should allow third parties “to do their dirty work” and each should be willing to “sign their own name” to the ads that air in the race.
Under the terms of the pact, spending would be banned not just from the so-called super PACs that have played such an influential role in the presidential campaign, but also the more traditional campaign committees of state and national parties. If either candidate benefits from an attack ad funded by an outside group, that candidate would have to pay 60 percent of the ad’s cost to a charity of the other candidate’s choice. Berkley said the penalty should dissuade outside groups from spending in Nevada.
“They would actually be hurting the candidate they are trying to support,” Berkley said. “Neither Dean nor I can afford that kind of penalty.”
In 2010, outside groups spent more than $14 million in the race between U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.
Berkley noted that Democratic groups outspent the Republican organizations in that race by more than $400,000, arguing that she isn’t offering the pact as a way to gain a financial leg up in the race.
In Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown donated $1,000 to an autism organization after a third party posted Google ads supporting his candidacy. However, whether the pact will actually succeed in keeping third parties out of such a critical race is still unclear.
In the presidential race, super PACs have spent more than $36 million on Republican presidential candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Super PACs can raised unlimited amount of money from corporations, unions and individuals.
Originally, President Obama had spoken out against super PAC spending on his behalf, but ultimately he acquiesced to concerns that Democrats would be far outspent if he didn’t allow a super PAC to operate in his favor.
While Berkley said she has signed the pact, she didn’t vow to stick with it if Heller decides not to sign it, saying she would cross that bridge when she comes to it.
It’s unlikely, however, she would consider the pact valid and request Democratic groups to unilaterally disarm.