Harvard law professor Larry Lessig’s campaign finance reform super PAC failed comprehensively on election night, but attracting public and media attention to the cause is still its only hope. (Photo: Joi Ito/Flickr CC)

Mayday, Mayday:

How Not to Reflect on Campaign Finance Reform’s Disastrous 2014 Election Night

Politico’s Ken Vogel and Byron Tau have the definitive, scathing breakdown of the calamitous 2014 election day for Mayday PAC, a super PAC that is trying to spend big money to get money out of politics. In its first election cycle, Mayday failed comprehensively in its foremost goal of electing reform-minded candidates. Vogel and Tau are rightfully ruthless — spending $10 million on several ambitious races and losing all of them is an unequivocal disaster.

Over the next few days, Mayday will inevitably release some polling data to show that the message is beginning to get across to the public even though the candidates aren’t winning. But at the end of the day, that just proves what we all already knew: a lot of Americans oppose the undue influence of money in politics, they’re just not willing to do much about it.

With that being said, some courageously anonymous sources in the piece incredulously suggest that Mayday co-founder and Harvard law professor Larry Lessig’s grand attempt to make campaign finance a mainstream political issue is actually hurting the cause. According to Vogel and Tau, the buzz that Lessig and his PR strategists generated “prompted grumbles from ostensible allies who were irked by Mayday’s headline-grabbing and wondered whether all the attention was helpful to the cause.”

So let’s be perfectly clear about this: The notion that quiet, behind-the-scenes politicking can someday lead to comprehensive campaign finance reform is patently absurd. We’re talking about reversing the effects of the most significant and well-known Supreme Court decision since Bush v. Gore, drastically shrinking a multi-billion dollar industry overnight, and wrenching power away from some of the most power-hungry people in the entire world. This is not some pet political pork that you can tactically maneuver onto the end of some long, unrelated bill and hope nobody notices. This kind of sweeping, controversial change simply does not happen behind the closed doors of the Capitol building cloakrooms or K Street boardrooms.

Incredibly, it seems Lessig is one of the first to recognize that for this kind of unlikely effort to stand even the most remote chance, it will require massive public mobilization. Although he offers a new strategy, he has repeatedly praised and supported those who have spent decades of arduous work fighting for this cause. But the fact of the matter is that they have little to show for it — indeed, despite their respectable efforts, the scope of the problem has gotten dramatically worse under their watch.

There’s nothing novel about Lessig’s assertion that the more entrenched money-in-politics becomes, the harder it will be to get it out. It’s intuitive, it’s happening right in front of our eyes, and it’s supported by all the data and political science research. He’s vigorously studied the history and laws of campaign finance and made the frankly obvious observation that the prospects for reform are now-or-never. And while the likelihood of never seems increasingly likely each day, his only options are to either resign himself to that fate or go all-in on the now.

By jumping into this cycle, Mayday took a huge risk. Failure could not only further discourage potential supporters of reform but also prove that money indeed cannot win elections. Some astute opponents of campaign finance reform ingeniously point out that, as always, several candidates that were heavily outspent in this cycle still ended up winning. That’s completely irrelevant in several ways. First, it’s cherry-picking a handful of outliers to obfuscate a much broader trend. Second, while big money has an increasingly profound impact on electoral politics, nobody is suggesting that it is the absolute be-all and end-all of winning.

But more importantly, the issue is actually not whether big money is the key to winning elections, it’s whether politicians think that big money is the key to winning elections. If they do, the odds are much higher that they’ll be happily willing to compromise their values and their broader constituent preferences if it will open up a few fat wallets. And if politicians did not believe that massive cash reserves are essential for staying in office, they probably wouldn’t spend a whopping 30–70% of their valuable time fundraising from big donors.

But when overall campaign spending is in the billions and individual senate races are funded by over $100 million, spending just $10 million across several different races was always going to struggle to compete against the big guns. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC and Koch groups combined to spend $24 million in a single North Carolina senate race alone.

In that sense, Mayday’s naiveté and ultimate failure actually proves Lessig’s point. If you can raise as much money as Mayday did from a combination of crowd-funding and bigger donations and still not make any significant dent in these races, you can only begin to imagine how completely inconsequential small donors have become. Politicians need not so much as blink at just a few million dollars when the real prizes are even larger.

Ironically, Lessig can now look to Rove of all people for inspiration. The 2012 election cycle was infamously humiliating for George W. Bush’s former political architect: American Crossroads PAC spent over $100 million and successfully defeated just two candidates for a return on investment of 1.29 percent. This time around, $26 million of spending from the group led to a 96 percent success rate.

Much like every single campaign finance reform effort before it, Mayday has clearly yet to break much ground. But if it is going to stand any chance in the coming years, it will need to continue trying to galvanize voters behind the issue. Lessig was not “siphoning off money that could have [been] spent more effectively by existing groups,” he was raising money that otherwise would likely have never gone towards campaign finance reform at all. Maybe the “ivory tower egghead” doesn’t have a “radio voice,” but he’s brought new energy, supporters and ideas to a campaign that sorely needed them. Instead of trashing Lessig in Politico, his ostensible allies should be thanking their lucky stars he joined the team.

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