FRANKFORT — An advocacy group for government transparency has challenged Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates to sign a pledge designed to limit spending by outside groups on the race, which is expected to be the most expensive Senate contest in history.
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, sent letters this week to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, asking them to sign a so-called People's Pledge.
Under the pledge, if an independent group spends money to advertise on TV, radio, online or print supporting a candidate, that candidate must pay 50 percent of the cost of airing that ad to a charity of the other candidate's choice.
Beliles noted that candidates in several other states, most notably the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, have signed similar pledges.
Left unchecked, spending by outside groups will mean "the little person will have less access and influence with these candidates," Beliles said in an interview. "The only ones to benefit will be the television stations."
Jonathan Hurst, Grimes' campaign manager, said in an email that "Alison has already called for both campaigns to agree to a People's Pledge, but because Mitch McConnell's campaign is funded by Wall Street and Washington outsiders, it's doubtful he would sign such an agreement.
The McConnell campaign appeared unwilling to sign the pledge.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes is once again taking her cues from Barack Obama and special interests in Washington who believe it's okay to barter our First Amendment rights away if it improves their electoral prospects," said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.
Independent political groups with ties to McConnell have spent millions in recent months on multiple television ads that criticize Grimes and praise McConnell.
As of April 15, McConnell's campaign had raised $22.3 million. In early May, it had about $10 million on hand.
Grimes has raised nearly $8 million. She has spent more than $3 million so far, leaving her with about $5 million on hand.
In 2012, Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts approached Democrat Elizabeth Warren with the idea to curtail the influence of Super PACs, non-profits and other outside groups in their race. Both sides eventually agreed to sign the pledge.
News reports said there were some minor infractions but, for the most part, outside independent groups let the two campaigns fight it out on their own. Warren, who eventually won, raised $42 million to Brown's $28 million.
Though the pledge does not directly restrict groups from running ads, outside groups did reduce their advertising. Many of those groups still spent money on automated telephone calls, direct mail and get-out-the vote canvassing, bringing the total cost of the race to about $82 million.
In Kentucky's Senate race, political observers say the cost could exceed $100 million, which The Washington Post first reported.
Political observers expect McConnell to spend at least $35 million and Grimes to spend about $30 million. Both McConnell and Grimes are expected to raise more than three-fourths of their money outside Kentucky.
The national parties are expected to allocate $10 million each to McConnell and Grimes, leaving the independent groups that Common Cause wants to limit to spend about $15 million.