Taking the unusual step of weighing into a Democratic primary, the Obama administration on Wednesday called on a super PAC backing Rep. Donna F. Edwards' bid for Maryland's open Senate seat to pull an advertisement that features a clip of the president.
White House political director David Simas reached out to the group, Working for US, and asked it to take down the attack ad against Rep. Chris Van Hollen. The ad, which began running Tuesday on broadcast television in Baltimore and Washington, suggests Van Hollen created a carve out for the gun lobby in a 2010 campaign finance bill.
"Simas reached out to the Working For Us PAC and asked them to immediately take down the ad and stop using it going forward," White House deputy press secretary Jennifer Friedman said in a statement to Politico. "He made clear that the use of the president's image and statement in this context were misleading."
Speaking at an event at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Van Hollen said he was a staunch advocate of policies to curb gun violence and described the ad as "a new low in Maryland politics."
"It's absolutely dispicable to mislead voters on an issue but especially on the tragic issue of gun violence that takes such a toll on all our communities," Van Hollen said. "I have led the fight against the NRA in the Maryland legislature ... and continue to lead the fight working with President Obama at the federal level."
A spokesman for the PAC told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday that, after that request, it has made the decision to remove the president from the ad.
"We stand by the facts in this ad," Working for US spokesman Joshua Henne said. "However, out of respect for the White House and the work they've done on this important issue, we will be taking President Obama out of the spot.
"The ad speaks for itself," Henne said. "In 2010, reporters called it a 'classic backroom special interest deal' and detailed how Chris Van Hollen met twice with the NRA's 'chief lobbyist'. Van Hollen caved to the NRA and carved out their loophole, while Donna Edwards voted against it."
The Obama administration and House Democrats, eager to roll back the impact of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, were attempting to press a campaign disclosure bill through Congress in 2010 that was crafted by Van Hollen. To bring more Democrats on board, House leaders included an exemption for National Rifle Association. Lawmakers later tweaked the bill to exempt a broader array of groups, and it passed with all but 36 Democrats.
Edwards voted against the measure; Van Hollen supported it.
For months Edwards, of Prince George's County, has argued that represented a caving in by Van Hollen -- a willingness to sacrifice a principle in order to cut a deal. Van Hollen has countered for months that there were bigger issues at stake, and has pointed out that many liberal Democrats, including Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, also voted for the measure.
"The NRA and its campaign cash is what stands between us and gun reform," the ad's narrator says. "Chris Van Hollen met with NRA lobbyists to craft a loophole that would let the NRA skirt a new campaign finance law."
Van Hollen dismissed the idea that the ad made a legitimate comparison between the political styles of the two candidates.
"I don't think the president and the vice president of the United States issue calls to pull ads down when there's simply a difference of opinion," he said. "This is an extraordinary measure they've taken."
But what likely got the attention of the White House was a video of the president speaking about the deaths at the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012; the ad subtly suggests the president opposed Van Hollen's effort when, in fact, the opposite is true.
The super PAC previously received money from labor, but its funding is less clear now because it has not received a donation in years. Henne declined Tuesday to say whether the group was still backed by unions, or to provide any clarity on its funding. That information should become available when the group files a report with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, called for the group to take down the ad in an interview with The Sun on Tuesday.
"The ad released today by the Working for US PAC is dishonest and should be taken down," Hoyer said. "The bill had nothing to do with gun violence. ... Chris's record is clear, and this attack ad, which tries to imply otherwise, is shameful."
A series of polls this year have shown the race for retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat is close. An NBC4/Marist Poll released Tuesday found Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, with a six-point lead over Edwards, of Prince George's County.
The primary in April 26, and early voting begins Thursday.