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Money Raised; Now Lessig’s SuperPAC Must Win

Lawrence Lessig’s super PAC is looking for candidates who will back campaign finance reform. Credit Charlie Mahoney for The New York Times

The “super PAC to end all super PACs” reached its fund-raising goal in just over two months, but now comes the hard part: winning elections.

The Mayday PAC, a project begun May 1 by the Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, seeks to elect a Congress that will achieve “fundamental reform in the way political campaigns are funded by 2016,” beginning with five pilot races in this year’s House elections. In a July 4 posting to supporters after announcing the PAC reached its goal, Mr. Lessig wrote, “You have guaranteed” change.

The PAC raised $1 million in its first month and reached another $5 million by Friday. A storm of donors posted on social media on the Fourth of July about getting “big money out of politics” and ending political corruption. The $6 million raised is to be matched by other donors, for a total of $12 million to spend on the midterms.

The Mayday PAC’s website says the $12 million will be spent in five House races to be announced on July 15. That amount isn’t insignificant: The reported outside spending so far this cycle in West Virginia’s Third District, one of the more competitive general election contests, is $2 million.

Mayday eventually plans to push for legislation that would replace the campaign finance system for federal candidates with incentives for candidates to raise small-dollar donations that would then be matched by public money (New York City has a similar system).

But before that, the PAC aims to make a difference in House races this year, and to clearly tie that difference to the issue of campaign finance reform. This is harder than it might sound. Most House races are not competitive, and the handful that are will have millions in outside spending. The Mayday PAC plan specifically calls for upsets: “We are looking for districts in which a victory would signal that conventional wisdom was wrong: that voters, that is, could be mobilized on the basis of this issue enough to dislodge even dominant incumbents.”

In practice, that would suggest that the PAC could focus its energies on districts with Republican incumbents who could be vulnerable to a challenge, since so few Republicans in Congress support legislation changing the campaign finance system. The Cook Political Report lists 16 “Lean Republican” districts, including open seats in Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. But open seats are more likely to attract the kind of outside attention that would make it harder for Mayday to make itself heard.

Another option would be to pressure incumbent Democrats to support legislation or to defeat incumbents who have not signed on to the group’s plans. But that route is complicated by finding Republicans willing to back such proposals and by the primary calendar. California, which has an open primary system that sends the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the general election, might provide a useful platform for such an approach.

There are several legislative proposals that would accomplish parts or all of what the Mayday PAC seeks. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, has introduced a bill to provide public financing for congressional races; it has 28 Democratic and one Republican as co-sponsors. A proposal from the Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes would provide a 50 percent tax credit for individual campaign contributions to House candidates and national parties and create a voucher program that would enable individuals to give up to $50 in contributions to candidates. That bill has 156 cosponsors, including one Republican. Another proposal by Mr. Sarbanes would provide a $25 tax credit for making certain campaign contributions and has attracted 43 Democrats.

These bills speak to three larger truths. First, even among House Democrats, there isn’t a single idea or legislative proposal that has captured broad support within the party, to say nothing of Republicans. The campaign finance law passed in 2002 was several years in the making and required the support of 41 House Republicans, who helped bring the bill to the House floor.

Second, a public financing plan, if enacted, would not do anything to curb the influence of super PACs, which were created not by Congress but through the courts, including the Citizens United decision. While there is an attempt in the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment to give Congress and the states the authority to regulate independent spending, even the Mayday PAC describes this as unlikely and possibly unnecessary.

Third, while there is support among the public for a public financing system — a 2013 Gallup poll found that half of Americans would personally vote for a law creating one — that support was much higher among Democrats than Republicans or independents, and least in the South and West, where it did not command majorities. Securing victories against incumbent Republicans would require energizing and turning out independents in November. The same poll found greater levels of support for limiting the amount of money candidates could raise and spend.

Appeals for the Mayday PAC have been scrupulously bipartisan, with complaints about money’s impact on both the right and left. But a map of the number of donations to the Mayday PAC through June 27 shows more donations from areas where Democrats are already representing congressional districts, mainly cities on the east and west coasts and urban centers in other states.

The geographic source of the money won’t matter much in independent spending campaigns, but when it comes time to vote, the harder task will be connecting with potential voters for whom the issue of campaign finance rivals health care, taxes or the economy.

Mayday PAC acknowledges the difficulty it faces, even while placing an emphasis on actually winning this year: “It is our view that to win on this issue ultimately, we will need to identify new techniques that can bring new voters into the political process. But in the short term, we need to use whatever techniques we can to win.”

More: Mayday: The Plan

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