Son of liberal financier George Soros launches anti-super PAC super PAC

July 12, 2012

It’s a super PAC that hates super PACs.

Jonathan Soros, son of a prominent liberal financier, is helping to launch an independent advocacy group with hopes of spending up to $8 million targeting House lawmakers, primarily Republicans, who oppose public matching funds for elections and other campaign finance reforms.

The new super PAC, called Friends of Democracy, will file its first disclosures with the Federal Election Commission later this month and plans to zero in on 10 to 15 House races with television ads, mailings and Web messaging, Soros and other organizers said Thursday.

Like all super PACs, Friends of Democracy will be able to raise unlimited funds from wealthy individuals, corporations or unions--precisely the kind of system that the group is fighting against.

“We openly acknowledge the irony of being a super PAC trying to address money in politics,” Soros said in an interview in Washington. “But our goal is to eventually decrease the influence of this kind of group...We don’t see any other path to real legislative change.”

Soros’s father, George, is a well-known contributor to liberal causes whose role in spending more than $23 million during the 2004 elections made him a bête noire among conservatives. The elder Soros has announced plans to give $2 million to a pair of liberal groups this year, as well.

Unlike his father, Jonathan Soros, who stepped down last year from day-to-day management of his family’s New York-based investment fund, has not been particularly active in politics until now. He gave $100,000 in seed money to start Friends of Democracy and said his father is not involved with the group.

Soros launched the super PAC with David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, and Ilyse Hogue, formerly with the liberal groups Media Matters and MoveOn.org.

Donnelly said the group will likely target Republican lawmakers such as Reps. Dan Lungren (Calif.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Jim Renacci (Ohio) and Chip Cravaack (Minn.) and at least a handful of Democrats who also oppose campaign finance limits. The super PAC also plans to offer support to candidates who advocate for reform.

The formation of Friends of Democracy underscores the steep hurdles facing advocates for campaign-finance regulation, who have been on the defensive since the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions could spend unlimited funds for or against candidates. That decision two years ago paved the way for super PACs and also made it easier for secretive nonprofit groups to raise money without disclosing donors’ names.

President Obama has railed against the Citizen United decision, but he also grudgingly gave his blessing to a super PAC running millions of dollars in television ads to help him win reelection. The Obama campaign has said it has no choice but to compete under the system as it exists.

That sentiment is echoed by the founders of Friends of Democracy, who essentially argue that they must use the tool of unlimited money to make it obsolete. One policy the group favors is a public-financing system like the one in New York City, which provides candidates a 6-to-1 match for small donations to dampen the influence of wealthy contributors.

Hogue said that, according to polls, a key slice of independent voters are very concerned about the role of money in politics and and could be moved to reject candidates who are in thrall to wealthy special interests. In addition to its main super PAC arm, Friends of Democracy will also include a traditional PAC subject to FEC contribution limits, organizers said.

“We're trying to overcome a massive amount of apathy in the public who have concluded that engagement is not worthwhile,” she said.

Soros said that “our focus is what you can achieve legislatively to meaningfully change the system. Nothing will happen until legislators know that they can lose their seat if they oppose change.”

Deputy editor, National politics
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