With just over a year before Election Day, Senate candidates Mark Kirk, Tammy Duckworth, and Andrea Zopp have been busy articulating the ways in which they differ from their competitors — from foreign policy to leadership experience. But in a race billed as one of the most competitive in the nation, it’s an agreement between the candidates — not their differences — that could make the biggest impact of all.
The issue that should be at the top of every Illinoisan’s mind as we head into 2016 isn’t which candidate is ahead in the polls, but the way in which the Illinois Senate race reflects a campaign finance structure that is increasingly at odds with the democratic values upon which our nation was founded. While Kirk, Duckworth and Zopp are each working to boost their own campaign war chests, most of the spending in the election will come from super PACs being bankrolled by wealthy special interests. Although these groups are supposedly “independent” of the candidates, they are known for blanketing the airwaves with negative advertisements and the source of their funding is often untraceable.
Across the country, super PACs have amassed more than $250 million and spending from outside groups will only increase as the election nears. This flood of outside spending turns elections into auctions for special interests and threatens to derail both individual races and the foundation of our entire electoral process. But it can also be stopped with a simple handshake.
If Kirk, Duckworth, and Zopp were to come together and make a mutual pledge to refuse the flood of unaccountable election spending by outside groups, the candidates would be on even footing and the voters would be rewarded with an election free of unaccountable, anonymous outside interests.
Four years ago, the Massachusetts Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown offered proof that such a pledge works. Warren and Brown made a mutual promise that if a super PAC spent money to support either of their campaigns, whoever benefited from the expenditure would offset it by forfeiting money from their own campaign coffers. Super PACs saw that any expenditure they made would ultimately hurt the candidate they were trying to support – thus changing the entire calculus around outside spending the race. The pledge successfully eliminated virtually all super PAC spending from the race, and it helped to cut the volume of negative advertising in half.
There’s little doubt voters in Illinois would welcome a similar pledge in 2016. A recent poll conducted by Bloomberg shows that 87% of Americans think our campaign finance system should be reformed to curb the influence of wealthy donors, with 78% saying specifically that they disapprove of the unlimited corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
Each of the two frontrunners in the race, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R) have expressed concerns about the influence of outside spending in elections. Duckworth has said that “Citizens United gives out-of-state billionaires and corporations an unfair advantage over Illinoisans when it comes to electing our leaders.” Kirk too has publicly expressed his trepidation about the possibility of “hundreds of millions of dollars from some unknown group rolling in.”
It’s one thing for candidates to disavow the influence of outside money in elections, and another to put their money where their mouth is. For Kirk, Duckworth, and Zopp — and voters across Illinois — it’s time for the candidates to take a bold move and agree together to be part of the solution.
Jay Costa is the executive director of CounterPAC, a nonpartisan organization working to create incentives for candidates to run more accountable campaigns.