Both Democratic candidates for Congress in the 8th District threw down the gauntlet this week, challenging each other to reject support from so-called super PACs -- political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited funds to influence elections.
But as Raja Krishnamoorthi and Tammy Duckworth try to lay claim to the high road, along comes a liberal super PAC that could lend a big hand to the eventual primary election victor by targeting 8th District Republican incumbent Joe Walsh of McHenry in the Nov. 6 general election.
San Fransisco-based CREDO Super PAC, calling Walsh one of the 10 "most odious members of Congress," is planning to set up shop in the suburbs as early as next month and mobilize volunteers to work for the Tea Partyer's defeat.
Duckworth, of Hoffman Estates, says she'll stand by a pledge against super PAC funding -- as long as Walsh does the same.
"We were aware of the potential for CREDO to get involved in the general (election)," Duckworth spokeswoman Kaitlin Fahey said. "And we would, knowing that, still extend the pledge to Joe Walsh."
Krishnamoorthi says he's considering the idea, but adds he isn't going to play by "two sets of rules."
"Given the track record of the Republicans I'm pretty sure they're looking at various forces, including Karl Rove and others, to defeat whoever the Democratic nominee would be," Krishnamoorthi, also of Hoffman Estates, said. "If Karl Rove and his colleagues would cease and desist, then we would definitely want to take a look at that for the general election."
Republican strategist Rove serves as an adviser to the influential super PAC American Crossroads, which spent tens of millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates in November 2010.
Walsh has not responded to requests for comment on whether he'd pledge to reject super PAC support.
CREDO, born out of California-based cellphone company CREDO Mobile, claims it's "turning the idea of super PACs on its head."
"Super PACs were created to help billionaires pump tens of millions of dollars into broadcast television ads," CREDO super PAC President Becky Bond said Thursday in an interview. "What we're doing is aggregating small donations from individuals and putting that together to fund grass-roots activism."
Both Duckworth and Krishnamoorthi oppose the influence of super PACs and support reversal of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to their evolution.
On Monday, Duckworth asked Krishnamoorthi to sign a pledge with her not to allow any super PAC money to be used on television or radio ads or on direct mail to influence the 8th District Democratic primary March 20.
Her proposal is modeled after the "People's Pledge" made last month by Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and her opponent, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, which drew praise from across the country -- as well as questions as to how such a deal might be enforced. A super PAC doesn't necessarily need a candidate's approval to spend money targeting his or her opponent.
Duckworth challenged Krishnamoorthi to agree that if a super PAC-supported ad did run, the candidate benefiting from it would pay half the cost of airing that ad to a charity of the opponent's choice.
But Krishnamoorthi said he'd get on board only if the pledge goes further, eliminating contributions from international unions, lobbyists or other corporations.
He also proposed that the candidates get rid of "paid media (ads)" by holding one debate a week until the election.
The evolution of super PACs -- a buzz word this primary season -- comes as a result of a 2010 Supreme Court decision. By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the government could not ban political spending by corporations in elections. While super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates, they can spend unlimited amounts of money to promote the candidates they back, flushing money into the race through television ads and campaign mailers with fewer restrictions than a candidate's campaign committee has under federal election law.
CREDO plans to divvy up a total of $3 million across 10 congressional races, including Illinois' 8th District, where it will work to defeat Walsh. Bond said she met Wednesday in Schaumburg with about 40 suburban residents interested in volunteering their efforts. CREDO, Bond said, "fully intends to open up an office by the end of March and we're working on hiring staff for that office."
So far, none of the 8th District candidates has agreed to a specific pledge.
Though Duckworth said she rejects the influence of PACs in the general election, CREDO invites a possible loophole by saying it is not supporting a candidate, only opposing Walsh.
No super PACs have yet to announce their support of Walsh.
With Chicago the third-most expensive media market in the country, the 8th District congressional race will be among the most expensive in the country -- along with being one of the most watched.
According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Duckworth has $561,652 in cash on hand. Krishnamoorthi has $791,158, and Walsh has $460,438.