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Jim Rubens and the Republican Crusade for Campaign Finance Reform

New Hampshire's dark horse Republican Senate candidate is turning right-wing populism into a crusade for campaign finance reform.

Jim Rubens on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Jim Rubens 

On paper, Jim Rubens doesn’t sound like a Republican Senate candidate. For one thing, he believes that humans are causing climate change, which is tantamount to apostasy in the post–Tea Party GOP. Rather than lay out any sweeping conservative “vision,” his campaign platform details a long list of wonky policy proposals that are hard to pin down ideologically, like his plan to break up cable and internet monopolies. He’s asked for a truce on social issues. On top of that, he has promised to fight the influence of money in politics, a position that until recently would have been a disqualifier for any candidate claiming to be a conservative.

In any other year, all of this would have been enough to write off Rubens and his long-shot campaign for the 2014 Republican Senate nomination in New Hampshire. A 62-year-old entrepreneur and investor, Rubens hasn’t held public office since 1998. His two statewide campaigns, for governor in 1998 and for US Senate in 2000, ended unremarkably. In this year’s Senate race, he is up against former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, the presumptive front-runner who has national party support and a wide lead in the polls. 

But 2014 is shaping up to be the year that political finance reform becomes a major campaign issue, thanks to a new crop of advocacy groups and Super PACS dedicated to reducing the corrupting role of money in elections. Rubens has been riding that wave, railing against both Big Government and Big Business, and accusing his opponents of being “career politicians” beholden to Wall Street and other special interests. It’s an anti-corporate, anti-business message initially embodied by David Brat, the obscure economics professor who defeated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in June, and who shares with Rubens a devout faith in the free markets as a cure-all solution to the tyranny of the money-and-politics class (as well as his hard-line opposition to immigration reform).

While Brat remains firmly in the Tea Party camp, though, Rubens appears to be bridging the gap between right- and left-wing populism. Last month, Mayday PAC, the “anti-Super PAC Super PAC," co-founded by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig and bankrolled by tech moguls like Peter Thiel and Sean Parker, announced that Rubens would be one of the PAC’s first 2014 beneficiaries, pledging to spend upward of $1 million on his primary campaign against Brown. Represent.us, a like-minded advocacy organization, has also gotten on the Rubens bandwagon, and on Friday, the two groups rolled out their first ad in New Hampshire, part of a $800,000-plus media buy that will continue through the primary. (Represent.us is also selling Shepard Fairey posters mocking the Obama “Hope” image to support Rubens.)

The exposure—and the super PAC money is nevertheless helpful for Rubens, who is trailing in third place in the Republican Senate primary, according to recent polls. So far, Rubens has raised only $588,000, and loaned his campaign another $500,000. Brown, by comparison, has raised more than $2.6 million.

“Jim Rubens is very smart in a policy sense. He takes positions on things, he's got cache, and he's saying some things that would interest voters. The question is whether he can he get that message out,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. “Is it an uphill battle? Yes, it is.” But, he added, “there is plenty of time between now and the September primary.”

With two weeks to go until Election Day, I called up Rubens on the campaign trail to find out whether he thinks he can pull off an upset—and what he intends to do if he actually wins.

Rubens presses the flesh. Photo courtesy of Jim Rubens. 

VICE: Obviously, you have gotten a lot of attention recently for your position on campaign finance reform. But do you think that’s an issue that will drive voters in New Hampshire this year?
Jim Rubens: This is a connecting-the-dots job. People in New Hampshire are deeply, deeply frustrated and angry—fed up to the eyeteeth—with career politics and career politicians in Washington. It’s universal, it’s across the political spectrum—[politicians] they go to Washington, they make promises, and they seem to become consumed with nothing but reelection and they forget about their constituents.

[New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne] Shaheen took $1 million from Wall Street and the financial services industry. Brown took $7 million from the financial services industry. I’m connecting the dots on this issue—the reason voters are so frustrated, and the reason why politicians are so disconnected from their states. It takes millions of dollars to get elected and reelected—the political money system has corrupted Washington to the bone. And it’s preventing Washington from solving the problems that everyone knows we need to solve.

A lot of your positions aren’t very typical of a Republican Senate candidate…
No, they are not! They are not! Because I am not held captive by special interest funding sources. I can say what I believe to be the truth, and I can propose things that I believe are completely consistent with core Republican values: individual liberty, personal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, balanced budgets.

You’re also the only Republican Senate candidate to mention climate change…
Not just mention! I have freely stated the—I’m going to call it a fact—that humans are responsible for climate change.

Have you gotten pushback on that?
A lot of pushback. A lot of pushback. But the solutions that I am proposing are very appealing to economic conservatives. I’ve proposed eliminating all energy subsidies, and allowing the free market to advance the need for abundant, inexpensive clean energy throughout the entire free world as quickly as possible. I believe that the free market, unleashed from corporate cronyism—the jetting to Washington to get tax subsidies and carve-outs and mandates for your particular form of energy. These forms are often one or two generations behind the technology curve—this corporate cronyism energy policy is literally retarding the progress of getting inexpensive clean energy, abundant clean energy.

Let’s talk about Scott Brown.
Like I said, he took $7 million bucks from Wall Street and voted for Dodd-Frank. And it’s hurting the state of New Hampshire.

Do you think voters feel like he’s a carpetbagger? Or is that a nonissue?
It’s the number-one issue. It’s less the carpet bagging—a lot of people have moved here from out of state—it’s the opportunism. It looks like naked self-interest: [He] couldn’t get elected in Mass[achusetts], so [he’ll] come up here and try to keep his political career going up here.

Folks see US Senators go to Washington, and coming back in a few years as millionaires—people know why that’s happening. It’s the corrupt political system. A corrupt political money system where votes are being traded for cash—it’s almost all perfectly legal. It’s legalized bribery. People like Jeanne Shaheen and her family, or Scott Brown, they go to Washington, and they get to be millionaires. And they forget about serving their constituents. And the point I am making is that this is why the country’s immense challenges are not being addressed. The motivations are all wrong. And the motivations are inherent in the corrupt political money system. And it’s got to be fixed. That’s why I’m putting a solution on the table: voluntary public elections financing.

Do you think you actually have a chance of winning?
I do. There are huge, huge numbers of people still undecided. Brown is really not selling at the grassroots level here in the state… When voters go to the polls in two weeks, it’s going to surprise people. It’s going to be like Virginia.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned from David Brat’s campaign?
There were lots of lessons to be learned. It shows you can operate which much lower amounts of funding. I’m fortunate that I’m self-funded, and that I have $2 million of pledged super PAC money behind me in this last month. But even if I didn’t, it shows that the blizzards of TV ads that Big Money has been buying are really not very effective if voters are given an outlet, an opportunity to express the desire to end career politics and get the country’s problems solved. And part of the solutions is going to be smaller government. If you give voters in this primary an opportunity to express that, as I’ve given them, I think we’re going to see something like we did in Virginia. And it’s going to be unexpected.