Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Wednesday challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller to sign a pact to prevent outside groups from running TV and radio ads in their Senate race, arguing the candidates shouldn't let third parties influence the 2012 election.
"We should not rely on secretive, outside third-party organizations to do the dirty work," Berkley said, decrying rising spending by millionaires and billionaires behind many of the political groups. "Elections should be decided by the votes of the many, not the money of a few."
In response, the Heller campaign called Berkley's Free Nevada Pact proposal a political stunt. And his adviser challenged Berkley to return campaign donations she has accepted from out of state before the senator would consider her proposal aimed at halting outside ad influence.
"Yet another sideshow in the Shelley Berkley campaign circus," said Mike Slanker, a Heller campaign consultant. "'Free Nevada?' Three-quarters of her contributions come from outside Nevada. If the congresswoman is willing to send her out-of-state money back, we are willing to discuss her pact."
Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman, unveiled her proposal at a news conference after she filed as a Democratic candidate in the Senate race. Heller filed last week. Two other Democrats and three other Republicans also have filed, but Berkley and Heller are expected to easily emerge as the two parties' nominees in the June 12 primary to face one another in the Nov. 6 general election.
The race will be one of the hardest fought in the country with Democratic control of the Senate at stake. The GOP wants to win enough seats to oust Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as majority leader.
In 2010, Reid defeated Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Each campaign spent about $20 million while outside groups spent another $14 million, mostly on attack ads. Democratic groups spent $7.3 million to support Reid, and Republicans spent $6.8 million to support Angle, Berkley said.
This year's Senate election promises to be a replay with the political parties, political action committees, super PACs and other outside groups spending millions to win the key seat. In the last Senate race, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spent most heavily to help Angle. Together, the two groups spent a total of $4.3 million, or two-thirds of all GOP third-party spending.
For Reid, the top outside spender was Patriot Majority at $4.2 million, or more than half of the total Democratic spending. The group was largely funded by unions and was run by a Reid loyalist.
Super PACs and outside groups are sure to play a big role in Nevada's Senate race just as they have in the GOP presidential race, including one funded by Sands Corp. chief Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire and his wife, Miriam, gave at least $10 million to the Winning Our Future organization, backing Newt Gingrich to keep his limping presidential campaign alive for months.
The Adelsons gave the maximum individual donations to Heller's campaign last year, or $5,000 each, half for the primary and half for the general. Adelson probably will funnel money to outside groups helping Heller as well, partly to support the GOP candidate but also because his relationship with Berkley soured after they parted ways over labor issues when she worked for him in the 1990s.
Berkley's interest in halting outside ads could stem from concern that Democrats will be outgunned.
"I think the fear of the Democrats is that there's going to be way more outside money on the Republican side," said David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I think there's a fear that even if she out-raised Heller, it's not going to be enough."
Berkley and Heller ended the year with nearly the same amount of campaign cash on hand: Berkley reported $3.75 million while Heller had $3.65 million.
On Wednesday, Berkley dismissed the idea she wouldn't be able to raise enough money to compete, and Reid surely will help. She said her goal is to keep outside groups from influencing the election and to ensure she and Heller stand behind all the campaign commercials Nevadans see.
"Let's keep the outside groups from attempting to buy this election," Berkley said.
Berkley's pact would cover every outside ad, whether it "promotes, attacks, supports, or opposes either candidate or their campaign," according to her proposal. The campaigns would "publicly reject and work to prevent the broadcast" of outside ads, presumably by asking them to be taken down.
Enforcement of any pact between Berkley and Heller would be voluntary, however. Under federal law, campaigns can't coordinate with outside groups. Also, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows such outside groups to spend unlimited funds as a free speech right.
To give the pact teeth, each candidate would pay a penalty of 60 percent of what an outside group spent to help him or her in the race. The money would go to a charity chosen by one another's opponent.
The pact is patterned after an agreement between candidates in a Senate race in Massachusetts. U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, proposed the pact, and his top Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, agreed to it in January. Last week, Brown's campaign asked a PAC to stop running online ads on his behalf and said he would make a donation to charity in accordance with the pledge.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.