During the fiercely competitive 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts, the two candidates made an unusual promise: neither would allow outside groups to fund attack ads on their behalf. If either Democrat Elizabeth Warren or Republican Scott Brown broke this so-called “People’s Pledge,” they agreed they would pay half the cost of the ad in question to a charity of their opponent’s choice.
“We’re saying that we want to be able to run our own campaigns,” Ms. Warren, now senator, told Boston radio station WBUR at the time.
Neither side backed down. When two outside groups ran ads on Mr. Brown's behalf several months before the election, he dutifully cut checks to Warren's charities. After that, the outside ad spending dried up.
But in this year's special election to fill the state's other Senate seat – vacated by John Kerry – things have been markedly different. When Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat, asked Republican Gabriel Gomez to take the same pledge in early May, Mr. Gomez refused, saying his opponent could afford to make that promise only because he already had a sizable campaign war chest built up over his nearly four decades in Congress.
“It’s an open seat but [Gomez] knew he was essentially running against an incumbent,” says Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. “Markey has a huge network of donors, so Gomez needed all the help he could get.”
But now it seems that strategy may have backfired. Since the general election campaign began, outside groups have spent far more on Markey’s campaign than Gomez’s. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, “super political-action committees” and other groups have paid out about $2 million in support of Markey’s campaign and another $2.5 million-plus against Gomez since the start of the election cycle.
For Gomez, on the other hand, outside groups have funneled about $700,000 into efforts on his behalf and spent another $700,000 against Markey.
And as the two candidates and their supporters race to reach lethargic voters more focused on summer beach trips and the Stanley Cup finals than politics, this outside money has fueled a blitz of TV and radio ads to hammer home the campaigns’ messages.
Over the past month, the Senate Majority super PAC, for instance, has spent more than $1 million on Markey ads, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dropping another $700,000, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which also collects campaign finance data. A second super PAC, the NextGen Committee, which opposes the Keystone XL Pipeline, spent $153,000 of its own to run a string of anti-Gomez ads on the streaming radio service Pandora.
Gomez, on the other hand, has received most of his outside ad money from a single group, a newly formed super PAC with the curious name Americans for Progressive Action. Since its emergence two weeks ago, the group has spent more than $1.1 million, mostly in ad buys for Gomez. (They’ve also launched a sparse website attacking Markey, 37years.com.)
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the exclusive source of funding for Americans for Progressive Action is a wealthy California winemaker named John Jordan, who says he has never met Gomez but was compelled to get involved when he saw "an American hero running in a close race in a tough state while getting absolutely pounded by Democrats throwing everything they could at him."
For the most part, the ads on both sides have followed the campaigns’ familiar yarns. Gomez spliced images of a dreary looking Washington D.C. with the text “37 years in Congress. Dirty Ed Markey,” suggesting his opponent was just a tired career politician. Markey, meanwhile, honed in on Gomez’s fuzzy positions on issues like abortion and tax reform to paint him as disingenuous and inexperienced.
Markey’s larger war chest has given his ads more reach thus far, but advertising is an uphill battle for Gomez in another regard too.
“Information from the media is more likely to impact voters when they have fewer preconceived notions of the candidate,” Ms. Jenkins says. That benefits Markey – one of New England’s longest serving congressmen and a known quantity in the state – over Gomez, who has never held political office.
What about the negativity of many of the campaign’s ads? Political science research shows that audiences don’t like negative ads, Jenkins says, but they’re also far more memorable than fluff pieces talking up a candidate’s positive attributes. There’s a reason, after all, that people are still talking about Lyndon Johnson’s famous daisy ad nearly 50 years after it was first aired.
As Gomez and Markey spend the final days leading to the June 25 election in a frenzy of hand shakes and stump speeches, they’re likely hoping their ads can also make an impression that lasts – at least until Tuesday.