It was supposed to be the super PAC to end all super PACs. The brainchild of Harvard professor Larry Lessig, Mayday PAC aimed to get money out of politics by wielding it against candidates who didn't support campaign finance reform. After amassing $10 million in a matter of weeks, Mayday started pouring it into congressional races around the country.
But the ambitious plot didn't pan out. Rather than send a wave of pro-reform politicians to Congress, Mayday was rewarded with mostly defeats. Now it's back to the drawing board. Two weeks out from Election Day, Mayday ally Ben Wikler explains what went wrong (and what went right). Wikler, a staffer at MoveOn.org and a friend of Lessig's who helped Mayday gain steam on his left-leaning podcast, "The Good Fight," sat down with me Wednesday at Fusion's Washington conference for social change.
Brian Fung: So you probably weren't expecting it to turn out the way that it did. What happened?
Ben Wikler: I was not ecstatic about the 2014 midterm elections. It's disappointing to see voter turnout plummet to the lowest levels since 1942. This was such a low-attention election, and it resulted in the election of people who appealed to — well, angry people, essentially. I think it was a snapshot of who was fired up, but it wasn't a snapshot of what the country thinks in general.
When I look at it from Mayday's perspective, Mayday had done this experiment to try to find out whether corruption and money in politics could move voters. They took an audacious path which is to choose races that everyone thought were… (trails off)
Hopeless cases, yeah. And part of the thesis was, if they would win in those races then no one could claim that it wasn't Mayday and money in politics that made the difference. The other part of that experiment is, even if you don't win, you can show significant movement in the polls.
My reaction the day after the election was similar to Larry Lessig's, which was: "Okay, we see the election returns. Mayday didn't defy all the laws of political physics and make a handful of races move in the opposite direction from the rest of the country." But the real question is what happens when you dig into the numbers underneath that. And it seems like they did move a bunch of voters.
Reading the data they've generated since the election, we know that in all the targeted races, there was a double-digit percentage of voters who said that money in politics was their top voting issue, and those people were significantly more likely to vote for Mayday's endorsed candidate.
The other thing is New Hampshire, where they poured several million dollars into the primary, Scott Brown, six weeks after the primary, was still viewed as a lobbyist and bad on money and politics by significant, a really big chunk of the electorate.
I don't think Mayday has claimed victory in the New Hampshire general election race -- they didn't do any expenditures in the general -- but it seems like they played a role in Scott Brown being defeated in a state where it could have gone the other direction.
Was there any thought about going into Louisiana?
I don't know. I didn't work for Mayday — I wasn't on the inside. My engagement with Mayday was as the host of "The Good Fight" and a friend of Larry's. I found it fascinating and exciting. But I don't know more than what Larry talked about.
The other thing that I think has been missed in coverage of Mayday, especially since the election, is that the power of super PACs is the power of their threat. So if you're an incumbent office holder, who are your potential threats? Who do you need to ward off?
Someone like Fred Upton is the classic example of this cycle. Fred Upton was a totally safe Republican, who had $2.5 million in his warchest and didn't have a serious opponent. Mayday came in, played really hard, Upton drained his entire warchest, had to be bailed out by the Koch brothers and started calling Mayday's donors, asking them to stop donating. I wouldn't be surprised if a bunch of other people didn't care about what happened to him and think, at the very least, they don't want to stick their neck out on [campaign finance]. It creates a different set of incentives if you know there's a pot of money that can potentially either drain the warchest you spent so many hours and so many days building, or that could back you in a primary or general challenge.
Did you see that Re/code piece about Mayday and Upton and how the tech lobby was up in arms because Mayday was going up against this guy who's been friendly to the tech industry? That seems like an interesting juxtaposition to me.
Well, I mean part of that article was about how Upton and his team were contacting these donors to Mayday and were like, "Hey, why are you supporting this thing that's going after me?" It could be that people who are regulated by Upton are nervous about giving to Mayday in the next cycle. But it also exactly proves Mayday's point. This is a very vivid demonstration of the interplay of money and politics.
So, there is going to be a next cycle for Mayday.
Yes. Mayday's laying its plans right now, and there are a couple of avenues for that. There's this army of people — almost 70,000 people now — who donated to Mayday in the last round. And they want to basically work with that group to turn them into citizen lobbyists and storm all these members of Congress and ask them to sign on.
The second thing is, one of the big lessons Larry drew from this cycle is that partisanship trumps almost everything else. So if you're a Republican, you're not going to vote for a Democrat because of your concern about a particular issue, and vice versa. There are almost no Democrats who would vote for a Republican simply because the Democrat is bad on campaign finance. What does that tell you? That tells you you should work in primaries. There are lots of primaries where this is potentially a dividing line.
Do you feel like Mayday had enough money going in this time around?
Mayday had enough to learn a lot. I think if Mayday had $20 million in this election cycle, probably the results would've been similar, the same way that all the groups that did have $20 million clearly didn't win every race. Like, Tom Steyer spent a lot more than Mayday, and he didn't elect a wave of pro-climate change folks.
It's interesting you bring up Tom Steyer because it doesn't seem like his strategy is to end the super PAC system; it's to work within it. And Larry was working within it, too, but his aim was to —
– To end it, yeah.
So, are we going to see more Tom Steyer-style work, or …?
The reason why money and power is significant is that it changes the behavior of elected people. Winning elections is one way it does that, but also taking up a huge amount of their time, or threatening their careers, or giving them a positive incentive to make their fundraising job easier. Those are all really powerful forces. Creating avenues for access is a really powerful force.
People forget that safe, incumbent senators spend hours a day doing call time, sitting in nondescript cubicles, picking up the phone, leaving voicemails for donors asking for a couple thousand dollars at a time, sometimes asking for people's credit card numbers over the phone — these are United States senators who are transcribing credit card numbers into a form with a pen — it's just the worst part of the job. All of them hate it. So if someone's potentially going to spend $1 million to beat you, and you need to raise that money in order to ward off the power of their attack, that just sucks.
That's one of the reasons why money that is connected to specific issue agendas is really significant, even when it doesn't significantly change the composition of who's in Congress. It does shift what people pay attention to.
What's your impression of the way Mayday's money was allocated this cycle? If you were to draw a pie chart, what would that look like?
I should check what the figures are. I'm not sure they posted a specific breakdown. My impression is that a fair amount was spent on the airwar, on TV ads.
Any door-to-door action?
I don't know if they did a field campaign this cycle or not. My impression is they're thinking much more seriously about it in the next one. I almost feel like second-guessing the specific allocation of resources to different tactics misses the broader point, which is making a visible demonstration of the threat of being on the wrong side of money in politics.
There have been a bunch of great pieces of journalism where they talk to members of Congress about what Citizens United means to them, and what you hear over and over is what they hate about the rise of super PACs is that they can build a campaign plan, raise all the money they need to, build their coalition, have their field operation, everything is going to plan, and the week before the election, suddenly somebody drops $500,000 into their race. Their only chance at survival is finding somebody to drop $500,000 in on their side, and it's just out of their control.
If you look at Bloomberg's strategy on gun safety, part of the idea there is that politicians routinely inoculated themselves against NRA attacks but now there's actually a countervailing force. If the NRA goes after you, you know that someone else will come in on the other side with equal ferocity. And you might have to inoculate yourself against a Bloomberg attack in your primary.
What do you differently next time? Where does Mayday go from here?
One big part of Mayday's plan that did not work was getting a match by billionaires who were already pouring money into the political process, but who also wanted to end the power of money in the political process. That was part of the really interesting idea — a lot of megadonors are only donating because they have to given the way the system works, but that they would also like the system to change. But none of those people really came through.
Mayday's constituency, Mayday's tribe, is made of people who are frustrated by how the system works. And it should be focused on them, and frankly it seems like it's more a small-dollar community than a big-dollar community. That means there's going to be more patient, grassroots-focused organizing, but it also means that there's going to be an army of constituents in all these cities across the country that can do lobbying work. And giving people more avenues to have an impact than just donating is going to be a key part of Mayday's future.
There was a strain of thinking during this whole process that maybe Larry's too close to this, and that people are seeing this as Larry's project. Do you see it the same way, and is that something that needs to be changed?
I would like to see 100 more Larrys. But I don't want to see less Larry. I think having an effective ambassador for an issue is an extraordinary gift, and most issues don't have one. As a white male progressive Harvard law professor, there are certain people who will tune into every word he says, and there are others who will dismiss him from the outset. And what you want is communicators who can reach all the different audiences that need to be mobilized. Rush Limbaugh helped create this entire cohort of right-wing talk radio hosts by dint of being so successful at it. And what I'd love to see is an ambitious political communicator saying, "I want to be a money-in-politics champion just like Larry Lessig," and go out and make their case.
So Larry Lessig is going to be the Rush Limbaugh of money in politics.
(Laughs) As much as he might hate that metaphor, in the very specific way that I mean it, yes.
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