Massachusetts Senate race flooded with outside cash despite 'Peoples' Pledge'

Outside groups are spending heavily in the Massachusetts special Senate election campaign despite efforts by both Democratic primary candidates to keep the money out. 

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The groups have found loopholes in "The Peoples' Pledge," which Reps. Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch signed when they entered the race to fill the Massachusetts seat left open by former Sen. John Kerry (D). 

In a special election primary, with its shortened duration and expected low turnout, the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on either candidate — even if it's not on air attacks — could make a big impact.

Outside groups supporting Markey's bid have spent more than $350,000 this month, and groups supporting Lynch have spent over $30,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings — all without technically breaking the pledge.

The League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Markey, spent more than $235,000 on "field campaign consulting," the single largest expenditure of an outside group on the fledgling primary race. 

Overall, the LCV has spent more than $320,000 on support for Markey. That includes $20,000 for polling and nearly $45,000 on "volunteer mobilization."

NARAL Pro-Choice America, which also endorsed Markey, spent more than $22,000 on mailings to its members to share information on their candidate. 

And 350.org Action, another environmental group backing Markey, spent more than $15,000 on “media relations services” and “salaries.”

For Lynch, the PAC affiliated with the International Association of Firefighters spent over $30,000 on a coach bus and rally signs last week.

The People's Pledge was meant to prevent third-party groups from spending on radio, cable, satellite, online and direct mail advertising in favor of, or in opposition to, either of the candidates.

If any third-party group does launch on-air or mail attacks, the candidate supported by the attack agreed to pay half of the amount sent to a charity of the opposing candidate's choice.  

But none of the groups spending on the race has broken the pledge. It's a repeat of what happened in the 2012 Senate race, when both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) signed the pledge.

While no outside groups went on air for either candidate, many of the same groups that are spending in the special election — LCV and NARAL Pro-Choice America are two — supported Warren with canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts.

LCV is planning to spend at least $650,000 to support Markey with similar efforts, and NARAL has pledged to launch a door-to-door canvassing effort for him as well.

Jeff Gohringer, spokesman for LCV, said the group was doing nothing inappropriate.

"Our field campaign is the kind of voter outreach that's been done in politics for decades, and it's also the same kind of field campaign we did the last cycle to help elect Elizabeth Warren," he said.

But it's not entirely clear that voters will see the difference between outside money spent on ads and outside money spend on get-out-the-vote or educational efforts. Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh warned that voters are wary of money in politics entirely.

"There's still a feeling, I think, as much as people warm up to Citizens' United and everything else, most people view all money in politics as dirty. Most people see it as, there's nothing good about it," she said.

She cited the recent pledge from billionaire Tom Steyer to spend heavily in the race against Lynch if the congressman does not oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Marsh said that could backfire on Markey, if Lynch and his allies frame him as beholden to big-money interests.

Lynch campaign adviser Scott Ferson charged in a statement that Steyer's ultimatum "exemplifies the problem with the Washington establishment." 

“It’s not enough to support environmental efforts 94 percent of the time, as Congressman Lynch does. You need to be with every radical group 100 percent of the time or they will unleash millions of dollars against you. As a result, Congress is pulled to the extreme left and the extreme right at the whim of billionaires," Ferson said.

But Markey's campaign distanced the candidate from Steyer's effort.

"Ed Markey categorically rejects any third-party expenditure against Stephen Lynch that would violate the People’s Pledge they both have signed, and urges groups and individuals on both sides to respect the pledge to keep outside advertisements off Massachusetts airwaves," campaign manager Sarah Benzing said in a statement.

Even with their hands tied on air and mail attacks, however, those outside groups spending on the race could make a big difference, particularly considering the shortened length of the primary campaign.

Markey and Lynch have a little more than five more weeks until primary day, and the groups’ get-out-the-vote and canvassing efforts will make all the more difference helping to educate and turn out voters in a special, where typically voters tune out and don’t show up to the polls.