A few years ago, Lawrence Lessig, a professional troublemaker and Harvard University professor, asked some political consultants how much it would cost to rid American politics of money’s influence. That would mean not only electing enough members of Congress who would vote for legislation to rein in campaign finance, but also a president who would appoint new Supreme Court justices who would uphold it.
“If you had all the money in the world, how much would it take?” he asked.
They told him $700 million. So this June, Lessig and Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush who is now an independent consultant, launched Mayday PAC to formalize the mission. Their stated goal is by 2017 to have a Congress that would introduce fundamental reform, defined as some kind of publicly financed campaign system.
The plan, which has drawn plenty of skeptics, even sympathetic ones, starts with a pilot program in 2014. They have selected eight candidates who they want to elect this fall, a way of proving their bonafides and the viability of the concept before expanding the map, so to speak, in 2016. The price for that initial venture is $12 million.
And last week, they got their first win. With Mayday PAC’s backing, Ruben Gallego, a former state legislator, won the Democratic primary in Arizona’s 7th congressional district. The super PAC that wants to destroy super PAC’s is now officially in the game.
“I actually think of the irony as a virtue. This is the age of Colbert,” Lessig told TPM recently. “So hacking the super PAC to end the super PAC is a completely viable and obvious strategy that everybody is happy to get behind.”
“I have met people who say it’s wrong to use the influence of money to bring about a result, even the result of ending the influence of money,” he continued. “I guess I respect that. But give me something else, give me something better. The option of doing nothing just isn’t an option.”
The group’s next test is the Sept. 9 New Hampshire GOP Senate primary, where the PAC is supporting Jim Rubens, who has proposed his own plan for campaign finance reform, against frontrunner Scott Brown. It is a reflection of the PAC’s stated aim of bipartisanship. It is also backing the re-election of the uberconservative Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC). Jones, who is keen to impeach President Obama, has co-sponsored various reform bills, including legislation to match small-dollar donations with public funds.
Still, some of Mayday’s biggest donors are liberals organizations like MoveOn. It’s also attracted a $500,000 donation from Sean Parker of Napster fame. It plans to do all the things that other super PACs do, Lessing said, like sending out direct mail and going up with television ads.
Professor Lawrence Lessig appears onstage at the 2014 Webby Awards on May 19, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP).
The New Hampshire race will be tough. The most recent polling of the GOP primary shows Rubens attracting about 4 percent of the vote, compared to Brown’s 40 percent, but Lessig is insistent about describing Mayday PAC’s work as a real effort to win elections and change policy, not a quixotic undertaking that will run symbolic candidates just to get their message out there.
“Everybody thinks this, but nobody thinks there’s anything you can do about it,” Lessig said, referencing research that 96 percent of Americans want to reduce the influence of money in politics, but 91 percent don’t think it’s possible.
“What we’re trying to do is map a plan for how it is possible,” he said. “If we can do that, people are going to be more interested in acting on it because you can actually thaw this skepticism to make it feasible.”
That is the central skepticism that Lessig and Mayday have to overcome. Not only are their goals grand, but they are focusing on an issue that is not considered to be an animating one for voters. Senate Democrats have taken symbolic actions like introducing a constitutional amendment that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but nobody actually expects that to be a key issue in the 2014 midterm elections.
“It’s extremely hard to move the dial on campaign finance,” Heather Gerken, a law professor at Yale University who has advised campaigns including President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, told TPM. “Although voters pretty much believe the fix is in and are deeply skeptical of the political system, when you get to the point of trying to push legislation through, it’s just very hard to get anything akin to grassroots support.”
However, she added: “If anyone can do it, it’s Larry. He’s restless. He is trying stuff that people have not tried before. He’s harnessing politics to fix politics.”
More example like last week’s victory in Arizona and fewer like the expected defeat next week in New Hampshire would be Mayday’s recipe for success then. But it also remains to be seen what happens after they’ve made a mark. Groups like Americans for Prosperity — a political advocacy non-profit, not a super PAC, but the kind of group Lessig is after — would presumably step up to the plate if they actually felt their existence was threatened.
So far, Lessig said he hasn’t had much contact with the super PAC world. But those from the left side of the ideological spectrum are watching at least — and cheering Lessig on in his bid to put super PACs out of business. But even among them, there is a bit of realism. Becky Bond, president of the liberal CREDO super PAC, told TPM that campaign finance would likely have to wait until at least 2020 after Democrats have a chance to redraw legislative maps and take back the House.
“This is not an easy task, but it’s an important one. These struggles take a long time, and we’ll have to build toward it,” she said. “Many of the pieces of machinery needed to restore democracy are going to be decided by elections. That’s why it’s important that pro-reform efforts like Mayday PAC are getting involved in elections to help voters get an equal footing with corporations when it comes to who gets elected.”