People hate politics. So why is nobody talking about campaign finance reform?


Mitt Romney, right, and Scott Brown stand at Bittersweet Farm shortly before Romney endorsed Brown in Stratham, N.H. on July 2. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

After more than a year of campaigning, New Hampshire Senate candidate Jim Rubens (R) has decided on his closing message: the "disconnect between voters in New Hampshire and politicians in Washington, D.C." He was campaigning in Groveton, a small town of about 1,000 near the Canadian border, when he walked into a diner (as all candidates in New Hampshire inevitably do).

"The entire room erupted," the former state senator said. "People were ready to vent their frustrations. I've been involved with politics in this state for 20 years, and I've never felt the dissatisfaction more than I do now."

His anecdotal evidence is backed up by empirical data; when Gallup asked Americans what the top problem facing the nation was, many of the top answers have been variations on grumbling about the state of government today.

This discontent has led Rubens to make fighting corruption a centerpiece of his campaign. He says he'll only serve two terms if elected and that he won't take a lobbying gig after he leaves Congress. Rubens argues that campaign expenditures should be reported in real-time, and a better public financing system should be built.

On this last count, though, Rubens is on an island. Even as Americans profess an increasing amount of unhappiness with Congress and the political system, almost nobody is talking about campaign finance reform.

His quiet endorsement of such reform has won him support from Mayday PAC, a super PAC fighting the influence of money in politics that is run by Lawrence Lessig. The super PAC is currently running a satirical ad about Rubens's campaign pledges on corruption.

Despite the sunshiny support, however, Rubens is unlikely to become a U.S. senator this year. The latest Granite Poll has his favorability rating at 9 percent. That isn't because people don't like him; it's because nobody has any idea who he is -- despite his status as one of roughly 5,000 (slight exaggeration) former state legislators in New Hampshire. He will very likely lose to former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown next week.

But Rubens is also a good approximation of the lack of voter interest in campaign finance issues.

The status quo of money in politics doesn't seem likely to change soon given basically no politicians are even talking about it. Rubens isn't even talking about campaign finance that much; his campaign has mostly centered on crony capitalism and quid pro quo corruption. But there are so few people talking about this on the trail that Mayday pretty much had a potential roster of candidates whittled down for it.

"It's rare that you see candidates at the federal level -- state legislature candidates too -- run on campaign finance reform," says Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

So why are candidates like this such a rarity, even at a time when polls show voters are all for getting money out of politics and totally against government dysfunction?

Some candidates think their constituents don't really care about campaign finance reform -- something polls back up. Others might think that it's hopeless to even entertain the idea of fixing it. Most of them, however, have probably grown to like the current state of money in politics, or are at least able to deal with the current regime.

In 2012 and 2010, it seemed like support for campaign finance reform could catch on among the most powerful people in politics -- especially in the Democratic Party, which had failed to keep up with Republicans when it came to outside spending those two cycles. However, that was short-lived. The Obama campaign -- and many other federal candidates -- used the fear of outside money to spur their own donations. The White House's plans of tackling campaign finance, both in-house and legislatively, seem to have evaporated.

In 2014, campaign finance reform is even more absent from the discussion. Candidates rail against the outside groups spending money against them. Candidates use the fear of being drowned out by millions in outside cash as a segue into asking their supporters to give them millions of dollars. Candidates tell donors they need money to fend off money. It's a self-perpetuating cycle.

In 2012, Brown and Elizabeth Warren signed a pledge to keep outside money outside of the Massachusetts Senate race. This year, Brown declined to do the same in New Hampshire. If you look around at the most competitive races this year, there is not a "People's Pledge" to be found.

You find the same pattern nationally. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has become the Hodor of outside spending, mentioning the Koch brothers endlessly. As Dave Weigel has noted, mentioning the big Republican donors has done wonders for Democratic fundraising this year.

Democrats have also bashed the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision, which removed limits on the aggregate amount one person can give to all politicians, while leaving in place the individual contribution limits. But the Center for Public Integrity this week reported that Senate Democrats are primed to benefit from one of the massive joint fundraising committees that are resulting from McCutcheon.

And while conservative donors outspent liberals when it came to super PACs in 2010 and 2012, the three top disclosed donors to outside groups -- Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Fred Eychaner -- all donate to Democratic causes. (This factoid leaves out the big donors to 501c4 nonprofits, like the Koch brothers, who are probably spending as much -- if not more -- than these three.)

"Both parties are pretty good at using these tools," Scala says. "Why stop?"

As long as control of government remains divided, neither side is going to want to risk giving their opponent an advantage in the hotly anticipated 2016 presidential election by changing a campaign finance system that both parties have now figured out.

Which leads to the other reason politicians seem reticent of major campaign finance reform: A new law may fix existing problems, but it nearly always creates a new one in return. McCain-Feingold, also known as Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), helped stop so-called "soft money," but it also likely paved the way for outside groups' eventual domination over candidates who were still subject to contribution limits -- unlike the outside groups. Campaign finance reform in the 1970s created another set of loopholes. Those who have managed to get elected in the system left in the wake of these laws are probably dreading another change, just when they've started to master the current one.

Rubens isn't completely alone in discussing campaign finance reform on the trail -- even in the Republican Party. Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Andy Harris (R-Md.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have all pushed legislation, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Some of the other Mayday-approved candidates have also mentioned it while looking for votes.

But Larry Norden, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy program, points out that politicians often become far more enthusiastic fans of campaign finance reform when they are once again part of the peanut gallery.

"Some of the people who are most public about supporting campaign finance reform are politicians who are retired," he says. "You could argue that they don't have as much of an impact as if they had talked about this before they left. It's very difficult to get people to talk about changing the system when they need to go out and get checks."

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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