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Conservative campaign finance reformer names 3 priorities

  • John Pudner sits with the Monitor editorial board on April 27, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • John Pudner sits with the Monitor editorial board on April 27, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Republican campaign consultant from Alabama is developing a conservative coalition that will work to curb the influence of money in politics.

John Pudner, executive director of the organization Take Back Our Republic, points to some of the same symptoms that liberals do – the long hours that members of Congress spend fundraising and a candidate recruitment process that tends to favor “telemarketers” over problem-solvers.

But in describing his preferred set of reforms in a meeting with the Monitor’s editorial board Thursday, Pudner showed some overlap with the Democratic approach and some differences.

Pudner said his perspective was shaped over 20 years of running conservative campaigns, including his involvement in Virginia Congressman Dave Brat’s upset win over the well-heeled then-incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.

In the long run, Pudner said he foresees a constitutional amendment fully addressing money in politics, but he’s starting with smaller steps in the Republican-led Congress.

One of his priorities has taken the form of the Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act, a House bill sponsored by Arizona Republican Paul Gosar. He said it would close a loophole that allows campaign contributions to be made over the internet using credit cards without verifying addresses or security codes.

Over the past 10 years, Pudner said, campaigns have opted out of standard security checks, potentially allowing donors to use prepaid credit cards with fake personal information to evade contribution limits or mask foreign identities.

“You can use the same number over and over and over of a gift card (with a list of fake names), and you can run through millions of dollars this way,” Pudner said. “So you can be sitting in another country and decide you want to influence elections, start putting money into a PAC that you think hurts a candidate you don’t like ... and no one detects it.”

Pudner said in the 2008 campaign cycle $500 million was donated online through credit cards that went unverified.

Gosar’s bill, which was referred to the Committee on House Administration, is co-sponsored by 22 Republicans and seven Democrats. New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is among the Democrats.

“We think we have a real chance to pass this,” Pudner said.

In a separate effort, Pudner said he hopes to free up resources among everyday people to be able to afford campaign donations – with the goal of giving candidates more incentive to appeal to a broad swath of Americans, rather than a few billionaires.

While liberals have proposed government-funded matching dollars to amplify small donations, Pudner’s approach is to reinstate a 1980s tax credit of $200 for campaign donations. The four states that have enacted similar policies enjoy a 10 percent voter participation advantage over the average state, Pudner said.

“It turns (candidates’) focus back to the voter because each voter not only has a vote, but they’re a potential small donor,” Pudner said. “From 20 years of running campaigns, I just know it anecdotally: As soon as someone gave you $5, you knew they were going to vote, you knew they were going to start talking to friends, you knew they were invested in their government.”

As President Donald Trump works to reform the country’s tax code, Pudner said he hopes this credit is reinstated. Such a policy existed between 1972 and 1986, until President Ronald Reagan repealed it in a package of tax cuts.

A third focus Pudner identified centers on disclosure laws, especially as they relate to nonprofits that spend a large share of their money on political activity. Since these 501(c)(4) entities don’t have to identify their donors, this political spending has come to be referred to as “dark money.”

Pudner said these entities are allowed to spend political money, but it has to be less than half of what they spend.

“Well, there’s no enforcement,” he said, pointing to an election-spending watchdog website that identified 23 groups “that are breaking the 50 percent limit.”

“You can see on their tax returns. It’s plain as day, they’re breaking it, and our proposal is we want more disclosure. ... Let’s codify this regulation to say that if you’re going to spend most of your money on politics, you disclose your donors. Really at that point, you’re a PAC, you’re just hiding donors’ names.”

While representatives in Congress can be reluctant to reform the system that got them elected, Pudner said “Congress will act out of fear” as more people call for change. Or a “critical mass” will call for a constitutional amendment, he said.

Trump may be the most unpopular president ever at this stage of his first term, Pudner said, but a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found respondents saying if the same election were held again today, 43 percent said they would support Trump and 40 percent said Hillary Clinton.

Except for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, every candidate who ran for president had a negative favorability rating, according to RealClearPolitics averages.

“Everyone – everyone – is disliked,” Pudner said. “It takes that kind of outrage from everyone to say, ‘I want to change the system.’ ”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at
@NickBReid.)