A pair of third-party groups that have not disclosed their funding began airing attack ads Tuesday as the high-profile contest for Maryland's open Senate seat entered its final two weeks.
A union-backed group called Committee for Maryland's Progress purchased broadcast airtime in Baltimore to run an ad that argues Rep. Donna F. Edwards is "ranked one of the least effective members of Congress." Another group called Working For US began a new spot claiming Rep. Chris Van Hollen crafted a loophole for the National Rifle Association.
Both ads fail to offer a fully accurate picture of the candidates' records, and both have been put on the air by organizations that have not disclosed donors -- illustrating the limited clarity voters often have when assessing last-minute political advertising.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House who has not endorsed in the Senate race called Tuesday for the group airing the anti-Van Hollen to take it off the air, describing it as "dishonest" and "shameful."
"The ad released today by the Working for Us PAC is dishonest and should be taken down," Hoyer said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. "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."
One of Maryland's most powerful unions, 1199SEIU, told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday it had created the Committee for Maryland's Progress and was funding the anti-Edwards advertisement. The group, a longtime supporter of Edwards, shocked the state's political establishment in December by endorsing Van Hollen instead.
The union represents 9,000 health care workers in the state.
"Because protecting them takes more than good intentions, we need a senator who does more than talk," the narrator says in a copy of the anti-Edwards ad reviewed by The Baltimore Sun. "Donna Edwards was ranked one of the least effective members of Congress -- among Democrats, dead last."
The ad relies on the same study of lawmakers' effectiveness that Van Hollen pointed to in his first attack ad, which began running last week. The analysis is by a website called InsideGov.com, which is part of a California-based company called Graphiq. The report ranks lawmakers on how many bills they have authored that have been approved by a committee, a somewhat crude metric given the complexity of how laws are made on Capitol Hill, and the fact that Republicans decide which bills receive votes.
Speaking in Silver Spring on Monday night during their final debate, Edwards called the analysis "bogus."
Committee for Maryland's Progress has been operating on the edges of the competitive contest for weeks, spending $65,000 on a mailing to support Van Hollen late last month and another $9,526 on canvassing. The group made a small payment -- $1,725 -- to a political consultancy called Brass Tactics Solutions, where Van Hollen's campaign manager served as president before joining the Senate race.
The campaign manager, Sheila O'Connell, has had no financial relationship with the company since joining the Van Hollen team, the campaign said.
"We had a lot of high hopes; we were hoping she'd do well," Pat Lippold, the political director of the union said of Edwards in an interview. "Our meetings [with her] kind of went no where and didn't work. I think our members have been very disappointed in her."
Another outside group, meanwhile, began airing an ad attacking Van Hollen on Tuesday for his 2010 legislative effort on campaign finance disclosure, suggesting he carved out an exemption in that bill for the National Rifle Association. That group, Working for Us, has also played on the periphery of the race for weeks, and has run ads previously.
The group has received donations from unions in the past, but its recent campaign finance reports have not shown any incoming money, and an official with the group declined to provide any clarity on its funding. Its support should become more clear later this week when both groups must disclose donors to Federal Election Commission.
"The NRA and its campaign cash is what stands between us and gun reform," the ad's narrator says, before President Barack Obama is featured voicing his frustration on the issue. "Chris Van Hollen met with NRA lobbyists to craft a loophole that would let the NRA skirt a new campaign finance law."
Edwards has argued for months that Van Hollen and other Democratic leaders included a carve out for the NRA in a 2010 campaign finance law that he authored. Van Hollen has pressed back by noting that the legislation -- which would have required more disclosure of campaign donations from corporations, unions and nonprofits -- was supported by Democrats such as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, and pointing to a lengthy record fighting the gun lobby.
Obama -- who is featured in the ad in a way that makes it appear he's on the opposite side of Van Hollen -- in fact supported the Van Hollen legislation.
The Obama administration and House Democrats were eager in 2010 to roll back the impact of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United. But in an effort that left the "architects of the legislation squirming with unease," according to a New York Times report at the time, Democratic leaders included an exemption for the gun lobby to win enough support from House Democrats.
The legislation was later tweaked to exempt a broader array of groups.
House Democrats ultimately split their vote, with 217 supporting it and 36 -- including Edwards -- voting in opposition. Other left-leaning Democrats, including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Cummings, voted for the bill, which ultimately died in the Senate.
How voters feel about the legislative effort may come down to their thoughts on the broader narrative of the race: Edwards has cast herself as an unabashed liberal, representing a fresh voice in the clubby Senate; Van Hollen has tried to frame her as being a member of the Tea-Party-of-the-left, unwilling to seek common ground to advance an agenda.
"This bill had literally nothing to do with gun violence -- an issue I've been fighting my entire career," Van Hollen said in a statement in response to the ad. "Any effort to distract from the need to tackle this critical issue in Baltimore and across the state is beneath Maryland voters."
The anti-Van Hollen ad is running on broadcast television in both Washington and Baltimore, and also on cable TV in the state.
"There's the D.C. insider way of getting things done -- which too often means watered-down compromises and shoddy deal-making at any cost," said Joshua Henne, a spokesman for Working For US. "And then are leaders like Donna Edwards...we support Donna Edwards because she isn't someone who trades her strong principles to cut bad deals."
Polling has indicated the race is extremely close -- among the most competitive primaries in the nation. Early voting in the contest will begin on Thursday and the vast majority of voters will go to the polls on April 26. Though the outside groups use similar messages in their ads, they are prohibited by law from coordinating directly with the campaigns.