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Mayday PAC’s campaign finance reform goal: End big money with money

Last modified: 9/14/2014 1:01:09 AM
When Plymouth resident Steve Rand first heard about the Mayday Political Action Committee, he was inspired by the bipartisan PAC’s mission to end big money in politics with big money of its own.

Rand, who normally votes Democratic, began organizing campaign outreach for the Mayday-backed U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rubens, a Republican who advocates for campaign finance reform.

“I do what I can to get the word out,” Rand said Tuesday at Rubens’s primary night event in Concord.

An hour later, the race results came in: Rubens lost to former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, earning roughly 23 percent of the vote to Brown’s 50 percent.

Even though Rubens lost, co-founder of the Mayday PAC Lawrence Lessig doesn’t see it that way. The PAC spent $1.8 million backing Rubens in the race and was able to sway voters like Rand based on the issue of campaign finance reform, Lessig said. He points to the PAC’s polling numbers as proof.

This is just the beginning of Mayday’s involvement in New Hampshire. Lessig and the PAC are targeting the first-in-the-nation primary state to be the catalyst of campaign finance reform for the entire nation.

“It’s such conventional wisdom the world doesn’t care about this issue. We want to make it so it’s not,” said Lessig, a Harvard Law professor and activist. “We think it’s essential New Hampshire lead.”

Pilot phase

Lessig and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon co-founded Mayday earlier this year, with the goal to use big money in elections to support candidates who believe in fundamental campaign finance reform.

“Embrace the irony,” Lessig says.

This election cycle represents the Mayday PAC’s pilot phase, to show people that this issue matters to voters and collect data to use in future races. The PAC plans to back eight candidates of different political parties in races across the country. It has already announced five.

Rubens’s campaign for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary was one of the first. Mayday spent $1.8 million on the race, airing television and radio ads among other things. The group announced in August it plans to back Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in her rematch against Frank Guinta for the first congressional district. Lessig said the group doesn’t yet know how much it will spend on that race.

Mayday relies on crowdfunding, and has run fundraising campaigns on platforms similar to Kickstarter. It has also pledged to release donor names on its website.

By 2016, the group wants to organize a much larger effort to elect a majority to Congress that is committed to reforming the way elections are funded. Then, within the first 100 days of 2017, the group plans to press that Congress to pass meaningful reform.

“I think it’s possible to build this movement quickly enough that the movement against it can’t mobilize,” Lessig told a crowd who gathered at Plymouth State University last week to hear him talk about campaign finance in a lecture called “How New Hampshire Saved America.”

“If it’s not by 2016, it’s not happening,” he said.

‘Relevant funders’

The country’s campaign finance system is not only broken, but it’s corrupting the country’s entire democracy, Lessig said at the lecture.

In light of recent Supreme Court cases, including the “Citizens United” decision that led the to the rise of high-spending so-called Super PACs, political candidates increasingly dependent on shrinking pool of funders to bankroll their campaigns, Lessig said. He calculates that the “relevant funders” make up less than 0.05 percent of the country, some 150,000 people. The result, he says, is a democracy responsive to a small pool of funders and not the general public.

To address the issue, Lessig founded New Hampshire Rebellion, which aims to recruit residents to ask politicians running in the state, “how are you going to end this system of corruption in Washington?”

The group organized a 190-mile walk through the state in January, inspired by the late New Hampshire resident Doris Haddock, known as “Granny D.” She had marched across the country in the name of campaign finance reform years earlier. After the walk, Lessig launched Mayday.

Last week, the U.S. Senate voted on a constitutional amendment that would have regulated campaign financing; it failed to get the necessary 60 votes. Lessig said during the lecture he didn’t expect it to pass and said Mayday’s goal to pass reform legislation, such as publicly funding elections, is a more manageable solution.

“We want to take first steps before we try to jump to the moon,” he said.

Voters resigned?

The campaign finance issue may be a tough sell to voters in the state, according to Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College.

The average voters who tune into the campaigns after Labor Day may get a feeling that there’s too much money in politics and that they don’t like it, but they don’t know what to do about it, Lesperance said.

“That’s why the system endures. Most people are resigned to the fact that’s part of the way it works,” Lesperance said.

Lessig said the Rubens campaign offers proof people care about the issue, but said it also showed him how hard it is to get people to think about the issue.

According to polls released by the Mayday PAC after the Tuesday primary, roughly 8 in 10 of likely New Hampshire voters said it is important to reduce the influence of money in politics. The poll was conducted by Global Strategy Group.

Thirty-seven percent of Republican primary voters said the U.S. Senate candidates’ positions on reducing the influence of money in politics will be a major or deciding factor in their vote, according to a primary exit poll released by the PAC.

“From our perspective, that was an incredible victory,” Lessig said during the lecture.

Holderness resident Peter Hamersma, 66, said after the lecture that he was persuaded campaign finance is the biggest issue facing Americans. “We have lost control of the country,” he said.

Webster residents George and Sally Embley participated in the New Hampshire Rebellion and attended Lessig’s lecture last week.

George Embley is a registered Democrat but said he might have considered registering as a Republican to vote for Rubens in the general election had he won.

He admitted it would be a tough decision because he doesn’t agree with Rubens on some of his other ideas.

“People say, ‘Get the money out,’ but when it comes to voting, it’s a different story,” he said. “For someone with strong feelings on guns or abortion, campaign finance is not going to carry the day. I wish it would.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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