Getting big money out of politics may be a noble cause. But until now, no one has been able to do it.
Harvard Law School professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig thinks he has the answer: fight it with a heavy dose of irony. In May, Lessig created Mayday.us, which he called a “super PAC to end all super PACs.” The goal was to raise money to elect candidates to Congress who want to curb the influence of money in politics.
The group scored a major victory over Independence Day weekend; it surpassed its goal of raising $5 million through a grassroots fundraising campaign in June. The group raised $1 million in a similar campaign within two weeks of its launch. In total, Mayday.us has raised over $7.2 million from more than 52,000 donors, with an average donation of just under $140.
Mayday.us has also benefited from an online community that seemingly embraces its mission. Earlier last week, Lessig and Jack Abramoff—the disgraced former lobbyist—conducted a Reddit AMA, the site’s equivalent of a town hall forum, about the project. The organization has also been championed by the Bitcoin community. In fact, several enthusiasts of the cryptocurrency helped ensure that Mayday.us accepted Bitcoin donations that were compliant with the Federal Elections Commission.
A handful of larger donors contributed tens of thousands of dollars during the online campaign. But most people gave $100 or less, according to data posted on the group’s website.
Lessig promised that if the small-dollar campaigns succeeded, larger donors would match the totals, meaning that Mayday.us will have $12 million to help elect candidates who back campaign finance reform.
“The pundits say ‘America doesn’t care about this issue,’” Lessig wrote in a letter to supporters on July 4. “This is America caring. And this is America demanding something more.”
Lessig wrote that “no one expected” the crowdsourcing effort to succeed. Now that it has, the real hard part begins: finding the right candidates to support.
The aim is to mute the impact of super PACs, which often attract big money donors and can spend unlimited sums on campaigns as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. Super PACs spent more than $1 billion during the 2012 elections, with a heavy focus on negative advertising. In the midst of the 2012 presidential primary season, 65 percent of voters said that the Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for super PACs was having a negative effect on the campaign.
The group’s overarching goal is to elect a majority to Congress by 2016 that supports a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance laws. It wants lawmakers to pass legislation that would encourage candidates to seek small donations, which would then be matched with public money.
Those objectives are ambitious, but Mayday.us is starting small at first. It says it will stage a “pilot campaign” in 2014, in which it will support candidates in five House congressional districts. The candidates will be selected by July 15, according to the group’s website. But even such a limited campaign won’t be easy.
Mayday.us’s plan is to unseat incumbents who “defend the ways of D.C.” A plan posted on its website says it is shooting for upset victories in races where it’s clear that campaign finance is the defining issue.
“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,” the plan says.
That’s strict criteria. As The New York Times notes, there are very few competitive House seats in which these standards would be applicable. The super PAC would be more likely to target Republicans, since they tend to oppose more restrictive campaign finance laws. But there are only 18 Republican “toss-up” or “lean Republican” districts, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report. Of those, only 11 have incumbents running for reelection.
And those competitive races are likely to feature prominent debates on issues other than campaign finance, like the economy, Obamacare, foreign policy, and immigration.
Lessig further expanded on Mayday.us’s candidate test in a blog post on Sunday, but declined to hint at which districts it is exploring. Ultimately for the group to succeed, it will have to identify and mobilize voters and volunteers in those districts to come out and support candidates on the basis of campaign finance reform.
“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,” the group’s plan says. “But in the short term, we need to use whatever techniques we can to win.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.