Big money to fight big donors

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An unlikely alliance of liberal intellectuals, big donors and Republican strategists has hit on a solution to the influence of big money in politics: even more money.

Starting Monday, the recently formed Mayday super-PAC began a $12 million advertising campaign to help elect lawmakers of both parties who support proposals to diminish the influence of big donors. Founded by a Harvard legal scholar and an adviser to former President George W. Bush, the PAC is the most ambitious effort yet to turn dismay over supersize contributions into a winning political issue.

“Inside-the-Beltway people don’t think this issue matters; they don’t think voters vote on the basis of this issue, and they advise their politicians not to talk about it,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor with ties to Silicon Valley, who co-founded the Mayday PAC with former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon. “We think this issue does matter, and we want to prove it.”

As for the contrast between the group’s message and financing, Mr. Lessig has adopted a slogan: “Embrace the irony.”

A major part of the effort, which will first take shape in Iowa and New Hampshire, is to fight money with money. The Mayday PAC will begin buying up to a total of $4 million in advertising for both states, where voters are historically receptive to the anti-big-money message, advertising is relatively cheap, and any victories are likely to be noticed by both parties’ future presidential aspirants.

In New Hampshire, the group will seek to help former Republican state Sen. Jim Rubens defeat former Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate. In Iowa, the group is backing Democrat Staci Appel for an open congressional seat. Officials said the PAC is expected announce its next three targets in August.

The ultimate goal is to reverse a series of defeats that advocates of tighter restrictions on campaign money have suffered since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That decision freed corporations and unions to engage in unlimited independent political spending on behalf of candidates. In the past four years, court rulings and regulatory decisions have only expanded the influence and reach of big donors at the federal and state level.

Many Democratic lawmakers and reform groups have pushed to repeal the decision through a constitutional amendment — the Senate will vote on such a measure later this year — or with legislation that would impose more restrictions on fundraising. But those efforts have little support among Republican lawmakers and face an uphill climb in Congress.

Mayday and allied groups — including a new organization called Every Voice, which will focus this fall on statehouse races, and the Fund for the Republic, which is raising millions to finance grass-roots organizing and legal research — are taking a different tack. Instead of pushing for new restrictions on contributions, they are advocating proposals to spur more giving by small donors, in the hope of diluting the influence of big ones.

The Mayday PAC’s own funding is a mix of large and small: Silicon Valley luminaries such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel have made big contributions to match Mr. Lessig’s small-donor fundraising.

In Congress, the allies are urging lawmakers to support legislation such as the Government by the People Act, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and the Citizen Involvement in Campaigns Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis. Both measures offer tax credits or vouchers to people who make small donations. To win Mayday’s support — or fend off the group’s planned attack ads — candidates need only endorse one of these measures.

The limited requirements for the super-PAC’s support are designed, in part, to help Mayday enlist more Republicans. Party leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and conservative legal scholars are deeply opposed to proposals that would diminish money in campaigns, arguing that they are an infringement on free speech and healthy political competition. Mr. Rubens, for example, is in favor of giving voting-age citizens a $50 tax rebate check every two years to be spent on candidate contributions.

“As long as campaign finance is seen as a liberals-only issue, I don’t think we’ll be able to bring in the resources that we need to win,” said Nick Penniman, executive director of Fund for the Republic, which has received money from members of the Democracy Alliance, a club of top liberal donors.

Mayday’s founders believe that rank-and-file Republicans are more open to limiting the effect of big contributions than their leaders are. Mr. McKinnon worked with Juleanna Glover, a Republican lobbyist and former George W. Bush aide, and Trevor Potter, a GOP lawyer who founded the Campaign Legal Center, to interview 60 Republican and conservative leaders, strategists and activists for their views on money and politics.

They found that Mr. Obama’s ability to outraise Republican presidential candidates in two straight elections had cut against a common belief in GOP circles that unlimited campaign fundraising and spending gave their party an advantage. At the same time, some respondents told them that Republicans’ support for unrestrained campaign money was cementing public suspicion that the party catered to the wealthy.

There were no Cantor-like defeats in 2012, when a super-PAC called Friends of Democracy, supported by wealthy donor and activist Jonathan Soros, invested $2.8 million to back nine candidates around the nation deemed supportive of new campaign finance rules. While eight of them won, the victories did not make a major splash, in part because of the sheer volume of money spent by other outside groups and the public’s focus on the 2012 presidential race.

Friends of Democracy will announce this week that it is merging with Public Action Campaign Fund into Every Voice. David Donnelly, the new group’s executive director, said it will work closely with Mr. Lessig’s organization, but with more of an emphasis on state elections.


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