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'Super PAC to end all super PACs' rakes in donations

How can you limit the power of big money in politics? By starting your own super PAC, of course.
Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig, speaking in 2012.

One prominent campaign finance reformer is out to curb the influence of Super PACs on politics. How? By starting a Super PAC of his own, of course.

Lawrence Lessig’s plan may make for some cheap headlines about hypocrisy. But judging from the response from donors, the idea isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds.

Lessig, a Harvard professor, technology theorist and longtime advocate of getting big money out of politics, launched his “super PAC to end all super PACs,” which he named Mayday PAC, on May Day. Just over two months later, Lessig announced in an online letter to supporters that Mayday had reached its goal of $6 million for the period, through nearly 50,000 supporters. That money will be matched by a stable of wealthy donors—their identities haven’t yet been revealed—for a $12 million total.

"The pundits say 'America doesn’t care about this issue,’” Lessig wrote in his letter. “This is America caring. And this is America demanding something more.”

"The pundits say 'America doesn’t care about this issue.’ This is America caring. And this is America demanding something more."'

Lessig was motivated by the 2010 Citizens United decision, as well as a lesser-known ruling, SpeechNOW v. FEC, that built on Citizens United. Together, the effect of the two decisions, Lessig has said, was to pave the way for super PACs to dominate election campaigns by acting as vehicles for massive contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals.

Of course, to the kind of established super PAC that Lessig is looking to take on, $12 million is pocket-change. In 2012, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and an affiliated non-profit spent over $175 million. But the Mayday PAC aims to make a relatively small amount go a long way by targeting five House races this year, in support of candidates who share its goal of “fundamentally chang[ing] how campaigns are funded.” The idea is to use those races to demonstrate that reducing the influence of big money in politics is a voting issue for many Americans—something many Beltway pundits, to Lessig's frustration, don’t believe.

Lessig has stressed that the group is non-partisan, and its rhetoric calls out the corrupting influence of money on both parties. Still, given the difficulty of finding Republicans who are willing to commit to genuine campaign finance reform, it seems likely that Mayday would mostly support Democrats.

Once it has helped to bring lawmakers around, Mayday will push for legislation that would incentivize candidates to raise small-dollar donations by offering matching public funds. (New York City, whose mayor, Bill DeBlasio, was elected last year after running a campaign that relied heavily on small donors, uses a similar system.)

“By 2016, we’re going to elect a Congress that will fundamentally change how campaigns are funded,” Lessig told supporters. “You have guaranteed it.”

Several bills that establish public financing for elections, or take other approaches to encourage small donations, are currently stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pursuing a different strategy on the issue—one that may be more about election-year messaging. They’ve introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would boost Congress’s power to regulate political contributions, essentially overturning Citizens United.

Given Republican opposition, and the difficulty of amending the Constitution, few observers give the measure much chance of success.