Tech leaders back super PAC aimed at curbing big money in politics

A group of high-wattage technology entrepreneurs and investors have donated six-figure checks to a super PAC aimed at curtailing the influence of big money in politics, bringing new financial firepower to the fight over election spending.

Together, eight wealthy donors provided matching funds that doubled the $1.1 million raised online in two weeks last month by the Mayday PAC, a new group started by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and GOP media strategist Mark McKinnon. The super PAC is hoping to amass a $12 million war chest and make campaign finance a potent issue in 2014 congressional races by targeting candidates opposed to curbing the impact of wealthy donors on elections. (Yes, the group acknowledges it is using big money to fight big money – “embrace the irony,” it declares on its Web site.)

Those who committed large sums include:

  • Chris Anderson, curator of TED; and Vin Ryan, founder of Schooner Capital, who each gave $250,000;
  • Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who both gave $150,000;
  • Brad Burnham, managing partner of Union Square Ventures (which has funded outfits such as Twitter, Kickstarter, and Tumblr), who gave $100,000;
  • Fred Wilson, partner of Union Square Ventures, and his wife Joanne Wilson, an investor and co-founder of Women’s Entrepreneurial Festival, who together gave $100,000;
  • And David Milner, CEO of NuGen Capitol, a new energy venture fund, who pledged to match $100,000 that was raised above the original $1 million goal.

The big contributions give another major boost to Mayday PAC, which drew attention when its donor appeal went viral last month. The latest pledges mark a new level of engagement by the tech community in campaign finance issues -- including by some who have been major players in the system they are now trying to eradicate. Thiel fueled a group backing Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential bid with $2.6 million in the 2012 elections, while Hoffman gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing President Obama.

But Lessig said they share a belief that the system needs a major overhaul. Thiel and Hoffman financed an exploratory analysis that his group commissioned last year to see what it would take to have an impact in this year’s midterms.

Their key focus is the way in which innovation is being hampered by the political system’s benefits granted to incumbents,” he said.

Mayday PAC -- which is seeking to raise an additional $5 million online this month, money that Lessig hopes will be matched by other wealthy donors – plans to use its funds to run campaigns in five congressional races this year. The targets, which have not been finalized, will be candidates who do not support lessening the impact of big money on politics. The group has an early list of specific proposals it is asking candidates to back, including small donor matching fund programs.

The 2014 effort will lay the groundwork for a broader effort in 2016, when Lessig said he hopes to demonstrate enough momentum to prompt Congress to pass new campaign finance laws.

Mayday PAC resembles Friends of Democracy, a super PAC launched by Jonathan Soros that spent nearly $2.5 million in congressional races in 2012.

Lessig said he sees the two super PACs as “complementary,” noting that his group wants to have an impact in a shorter time frame.

“We need to get this done in 2016, otherwise the world settles into super PAC elections,” he said.

“I think one thing we all recognize is what we need to do is convince skeptics,” Lessig added. “We absolutely have to have electoral victories. The fact that somebody doesn’t come back to Washington will convince people.”

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