Lawrence Lessig. Image: Joi Ito/Flickr
Internet activist Lawrence Lessig's "Super PAC to end all Super PACs" managed to hit its self-imposed July 4 fundraising deadline, after thousands of donors responded to a last-minute online push spurred in part by Star Trek icon and social media superstar George Takei, who urged his 1.2 million Twitter followers and 7.2 million Facebook fans to help "take back our democracy from the super wealthy."
That was the easy part.
Mayday PAC's next challenge is to translate the more than $6 million it has raised so far—plus another $6 million in matching donations—into electoral victories in this year's midterm elections. The group intends to spend its newly raised wealth to support five Congressional candidates who are willing to push for campaign finance reform.
For Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and campaign finance reform crusader, this is just the beginning, a kind of proof-of-concept experiment designed to put elected officials on notice by mobilizing the public to make campaign finance reform itself a major campaign issue.
Mayday PAC explicitly says it wants to select five races that are tight enough so that it can claim that its campaign finance reform agenda made an impact.
By 2016, the group aims "to win a majority in Congress who have either co-sponsored or committed to co-sponsor fundamental reform legislation," according to the website. "In 2017, we will then press to get Congress to pass, and the president to sign, legislation that fundamentally reforms the way elections are funded."
It sounds a bit far-fetched, but so was raising $5 million out of thin air from 50,000 donors to support a cause that has taken one body blow after another in recent years. Lessig acknowledges that many would-be supporters have succumbed to the "politics of resignation," as the Supreme Court systematically dismantles existing campaign finance laws, opening the floodgates to an ever-increasing torrent of "dark money" cascading into our political system. But he's adamant that Mayday PAC can instill a new hope into the reform movement.
Lessig first rose to prominence as the nation's top expert on internet policy and digital copyright law. But several years ago he shifted his focus to campaign finance reform, after his one-time protégé, the late internet activist Aaron Swartz, convinced him that the corrupting effect of money on politics had to be addressed before reform on any other issue was possible. He's attracted the support of several deep-pocketed figures in the technology world, including Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel, and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman.
Mayday PAC says it will decide which five Congressional races it intends to focus on by July 15. For now, the group is being tight-lipped. A Mayday PAC spokesperson declined to comment about potential candidates. (As Lessig put it in a recent question-and-answer session on Reddit: "Don't announce troop movements b4 yr ready to move the troops.")
In a blog post Monday, Lessig offered a cryptic insight into the group's thinking. "Is the candidate credibly on the right side of reform.to?" he asked, referring to an online list of reform-minded lawmakers assembled by Rootstrikers, an advocacy group allied with Mayday PAC. "If so, then it is not possible that they’ll be someone we’re trying to remove. If not, then it is not possible that they’ll be someone we’re trying to elect."
Mayday PAC explicitly says it wants to select five races that are tight enough so that it can claim that its campaign finance reform agenda made an impact. That's where things get tricky. For one thing, most Congressional races aren't even competitive, as Derek Willis notes at The Upshot, and the vast majority of incumbents win reelection. For another, campaign finance reform is not top-of-mind when most voters go to the polls, as The Fix's Chris Cilliza observes.
Lessig wants to change that.
Then there's the issue of campaign strategy. There are dozens of lawmakers (overwhelmingly Democrats) who have signed on to a handful of campaign finance reform bills, but it would defeat Mayday PAC's purpose to back a reform-minded candidate who is cruising to a huge victory—or a huge loss. Likewise, it wouldn't make sense to target a non-reform-minded candidate who is dramatically ahead—or behind—in the polls. And of course, just because a lawmaker has signed on to a particular bill does not mean that he or she will ultimately support the kind of "fundamental" reform that Lessig envisions.
It may make sense for the group to consider other, perhaps less tangible, measures of success. For example, Mayday PAC could support an up-and-coming reform leader, in order to encourage that candidate to redouble his or her reform efforts. Or the group could target a candidate who has shown particular disregard for campaign finance reform, in order to send a warning to others. Or it could simply decide to back a candidate who has bucked the conventional wisdom by supporting reform, as a show of support. Such efforts may end up being largely symbolic, but in politics, symbolism can send a powerful message.
With those factors in mind, here are five candidates Mayday PAC should consider.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01)—A strong advocate for campaign finance reform, Rep. Shea-Porter, a Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act. She doesn't accept money from corporate PACs or DC lobbyists, according to her Facebook page. She even accompanied Lessig for a portion of his 185-mile "New Hampshire Rebellion" protest march earlier this year. Shea-Porter faces a tight race against likely opponent Republican Frank Giunta, a former lawmaker who was named one of 2011's "most corrupt members of Congress" by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This race has all the hallmarks of a potential Mayday PAC fight.
Roy Cho (NJ-05)—One of the most intriguing House races of the year involves a young New Jersey lawyer named Roy Cho who is challenging six-term Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett. The son of Korean immigrants, Cho, who has made campaign finance reform a key part of his platform, graduated from Brown University and Georgetown University Law Center. Many state Democrats are already heralding the 33-year-old as a rising Democratic star. A recent poll commissioned by Cho's campaign suggested that the more voters learn about the candidate, the more they like him. Cho faces an uphill battle, but this race could tighten in the coming weeks, especially if Mayday PAC becomes involved.
Rep. Walter Jones (NC-03)—For years, Lessig, a proud liberal, has made no secret of his desire to build bridges with conservatives, and even Tea Party members, in the fight for campaign finance reform. That's why Mayday PAC should consider backing Republican Walter Jones, a veteran conservative lawmaker who has called Citizens United "one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime." Jones is the only GOP co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act. Such a bridge-building gesture would give many liberals fits—and Jones will no doubt be reelected by a wide margin either way—but it would send a powerful symbolic message reinforcing one of Lessig's main points: Real progress is impossible on any issue, left or right, until campaign finance reform is achieved.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH)—Back in the Granite State, Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who also supports the Fair Elections Now Act, is trying to beat back Scott Brown, the former GOP Massachusetts Senator. After talking to Lessig last week, Slate's Dave Weigel reported that there was a "strong hint that recent New Hampshire transplant Scott Brown, who agreed to a super PAC-limiting pledge in his 2012 race but won't agree to a new one, is in Mayday's sights. What better way to announce the return of campaign finance reform than in clubbing a famous candidate in the first presidential primary state, just weeks before candidates start announcing?" Although Shaheen is polling consistently ahead of Brown, Mayday PAC may jump in to drive the point home.
Sen. Kay Hagan (NC)—If there is one national candidate who deserves the attention of a campaign finance reform-minded group like Mayday PAC, it's Kay Hagan, the North Carolina Democrat whose tight reelection race against Republican Thom Tillis could determine control of the US Senate. This increasingly nasty campaign has become emblematic of the torrent of so-called "dark money" that was unleashed after the Citizens United decision. Hagan, a co-sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, which would require Super PACs and other outside groups to disclose when they spend more than $10,000 on campaign ads, has been pounded by more outside PAC spending this cycle—$17 million and counting—than virtually any other candidate in America.
Lessig says his intention is to use "big money to defeat big money." North Carolina has become the central front in the Super PAC political money wars. More than half of that $17 million—most of which has been used to fund political attack ads against Hagan—has come from Americans For Prosperity, an out-of-state Super PAC funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
Of course, half the country doesn't know who the Koch brothers are, let alone that they're flooding our nation's elections and airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in largely unregulated campaign money. Mayday PAC may ultimately succeed in reforming our nation's campaign finance system, but "the Super PAC to end all Super PACs" will have to address that fact first.