WASHINGTON -- Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Thursday called on his opponent in the Maryland Senate race, Rep. Donna F. Edwards, to sign a pledge that would limit the amount of third-party money flowing into the state's marque political contest.
In an effort to stem the kind of outside political cash that has dominated federal elections following the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, Van Hollen is asking Edwards to sign a "people's pledge," a voluntary ban on certain kinds of political spending, such as by super PACs.
The pledge would commit candidates to donating from their campaign accounts 50 percent of money spent by outside advertising in their race. The idea is to pressure groups against running ads in a contest by exacting a punishment on the candidate they are trying to help.
"Both of us have called for measures to end the scourge of outside money in politics," Van Hollen wrote in a letter to Edwards that was released to reporters. "Now we have a chance to turn that talk into effective action."
In response, Edwards described Van Hollen's move as an effort to "silence" progressive groups.
"Until we have real reform, it is wrong to silence progressives who believe it is important to have a pro-choice woman championing their cause in the U.S. Senate just as Barbara Mikulski has done," Edwards said in a statement.
In a statement later in the day, Van Hollen campaign manager Sheila O'Connell said it was unfortunate that Edwards "flatly rejected" the example set by Warren.
Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker, specifically noted another politician whose race gave birth to the idea: Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who signed such an agreement during her 2012 campaign. Edwards, of Prince George's County, has frequently pointed to the liberal stalwart in her own messaging to supporters.
"Together," Van Hollen writes, "we can set a powerful example in Maryland and around the country by signing a pledge modeled after the one pioneered by Senator Elizabeth Warren."
The pledges have been widely supported by watchdog groups.
"In an era when Congress is gridlocked and has not been able to pass any legislation to address the disastrous Citizens United decision, the pledges can help keep out big outside money and make sure the campaigns are more about the candidates themselves," said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause.
But there is an important piece of context Van Hollen leaves out of his letter to Edwards: Warren signed the pledge in the general election, against Republican incumbent Scott Brown. Similar pledges have been used in Democratic primaries -- including in Rhode Island's 2014 gubernatorial race -- but they are far less common.
That is because there is significantly less third-party Democratic money flowing into primaries around the country than in Republican races. An analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data shows that the top-20 liberal-leaning groups not affiliated with a political party spent only 18 percent of their money in primaries in the 2014 election.
Put another way, third party groups on the Democratic side, at least, tend to hold their cash for the general, where they can try to influence control of the House and the Senate. Tellingly, the only examples of outside money Van Hollen cited in his letter -- the Koch brothers and Club for Growth -- fund GOP candidates, not Democrats.
One possible exception in Maryland is Emily's List, the Washington-based group that helps to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. That group, which has endorsed Edwards, is among the largest third-party organizations in terms of spending on the Democratic side, directing about $8 million into races in 2014.
Still, more than 80 percent of that money was spent in general elections.
It's also easier for Van Hollen to eschew outside money because he is significantly outraising Edwards in direct contributions. Edwards is expected to report raising $590,000 in the second quarter, compared to $1.5 million for Van Hollen over the same period.
Both candidates have taken aggressive stances on the issue of campaign finance. Van Hollen joined with watchdogs to sue the Internal Revenue Service over its limited regulation of politically active tax-exempt groups, and he has carried a bill for years that would increase disclosure of so-called dark money.
Edwards has pressed for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizen's decision and she was named by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to chair a congressional task force on the issue.
Edwards also opened a new line of attack on Thursday, noting that Van Hollen and other Democratic leaders had agreed to include a carve out in his disclosure bill in 2010 for the National Rifle Association -- a maneuver that sparked a backlash from gun control supporters. The legislation was later tweaked to exempt a broader array of groups.
House Democrats ultimately split their vote on the bill, with 217 supporting it and 36 -- including Edwards -- voting in opposition.
"When Congressman Van Hollen added an NRA loophole to his DISCLOSE Act, I denounced it on the House and fought to get it removed," she said. "In Congress, Congressman Van Hollen used his DISCLOSE Act to carve out a special deal for the NRA, and now he's trying to silence pro-choice Democratic women, working families and progressive advocates in this campaign."