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Why Did A Campaign Finance Reform Group Fall Short On Election Day?


It had been called the superPAC to end all superPACs. I'm talking about the political action committee called Mayday. Their single issue - campaign finance reform. Their tactic - use big money to fight the influence of big money in politics. The founders of Mayday PAC seemed to relish the irony. And they got a lot of media attention, but on election night, not a lot of success.

Mayday spent money to elect pro-reform candidates in eight races. Only two of their candidates won. And they almost certainly would've won without Mayday's help. Earlier this week, I spoke with Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law professor and a founder of Mayday PAC. Lawrence Lessig, welcome to the program.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Glad to be here.

RATH: So take us inside the Mayday war room on election night. I can't imagine that people were popping the champagne.

LESSIG: Well, in fact, they did pop champagne.

RATH: Yeah?

LESSIG: Although, they didn't celebrate the victories, obviously. But, you know, our objective from the very beginning was to demonstrate that voters cared about this issue. And, you know, whether we could survive the tsunami of 2014 or not, we were pretty confident that when the numbers came back they would show people care about the corruption of their government and a significant portion indeed, maybe larger than any other issue except for the economy, cares about it as the most important issue.

RATH: In terms of that tsunami though, of the eight candidates Mayday PAC supported, only two were elected - and those were in seats that were considered pretty safe anyway. Why do you think that your chosen candidates faired so poorly?

LESSIG: Well, what we learned - and this is the important lesson - is the overriding partisanship of American politics today, the kind of tsunami effect or the - think about it as the low tide or high tide of the particular party - is just overwhelming. But by seeing the way we could move voters on the basis of this issue - in safe seats or in primaries - that really signals an important strategic idea going forward, which is to win on this issue without forcing people to take sides on a partisan fight, because this is not a partisan issue. It's not a Democratic issue. It's not a Republican issue. It's an American issue.

RATH: In a post-election memo, Mayday PAC wrote that transparency - disclosing the names of all of your donors - actually cost your group. How did that hurt you?

LESSIG: Well, what we saw was a little bit startling and frightening. But we saw that when we took on a very powerful incumbent in Michigan, Fred Upton, the first thing that he did was either directly or indirectly to reach out to the largest donors on our list and made it known that he was very unhappy with the fact that they were supporting a PAC that was out there trying to reform the way campaigns are funded, and that they had picked him as a target.

Now, if we hadn't been committed, as we are, to full disclosure of our donors - anybody above 200 dollars - it wouldn't have been possible for him to reach out to those people and to express dissatisfaction.

RATH: Is that going to change how you do things going forward? Are you going to change what you disclose?

LESSIG: Right now, we've made no decision to change our commitment to transparency. It was more an observation. But we'll be thinking about what the most effective strategy is.

RATH: In terms of the context of the new Congress that's going to be coming in, Senator Mitch McConnell is a big opponent of campaign finance reform the way that you support it. He's going to be running the Senate for the next Congress. Is this issue dead in the water in terms of the Congress now going forward?

LESSIG: Nobody imagines that in the next two years we're going to pass fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded. That's just not possible. But what's going to happen in the next two years is we're going to build support at the grassroots for voters to get their members to sign up for fundamental reform. And after the next election, 2016, we're hopeful that we'll have a Congress that's much more open to this idea. But critically, this is not an idea, it's not an issue that will be won by Democrats alone. When we can frame this in a way that people understand it's not just a partisan push to get Democrats elected, they are willing to step up to support people who are supporting fundamental reform. And that's what the work is over the next two years, to increase the number of people who say this is a critical issue so that members of Congress have to listen, whether they're Republicans or Democrats.

RATH: Lawrence Lessig is a Harvard Law professor and founder of Mayday PAC. Lawrence, thanks very much.

LESSIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.