Conservative political consultant John Pudner said he realized that voter attitudes about political money had curdled into dangerous cynicism after several encounters he had last year.
“People said, ‘Oh, you’re in politics — isn’t the whole deal now that people give a million dollars to politicians and get millions back?’ ” Pudner recalled. “I said, wow, this isn’t so inside baseball. People are starting to view the government as transactional.”
So Pudner — who gained notice last year for helping tea-party-backed candidate Dave Brat unseat then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — decided to make an unusual move. He signed on to run a new group, Take Back Our Republic, charged with the difficult task of building conservative support for reducing the influence of wealthy interests on politics.
The nascent organization, which officially launches Wednesday, aims to alter the hostile posture of many Republicans toward new laws that would curb the reach of big-money donors.
“As a Republican, I have long felt that this was an issue that Republicans abandoned to Democrats at our expense,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, who helped launch the group and serves on its board. “I’ve seen increasingly a real problem with not just a perception but a reality that Republicans are too closely wed to monied interests.”
McKinnon said the distaste for campaign finance rules on the right is “driven by conventional wisdom that money benefits the Republican Party.”
But, he argued, “Democrats have figured this game out, and they’re playing it just as well as Republicans.”
Take Back Our Republic says it will aim to promote “market solutions” to elevate the impact of small donors and advocate greater transparency for large political donations. The organization is also emphasizing the need to protect political donors from retaliation — a major preoccupation of conservatives, who frequently decry attacks from the left on the billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Still, the group is likely to meet with substantial skepticism on the right.
Brad Smith, a conservative law professor and former member of the Federal Election Commission, called the idea of the GOP rallying around new campaign finance restrictions “a reform fantasy.”
“A lot of conservatives, particularly tea party folks and populists, share the general distrust of big money and power,” Smith said. “But then they begin to see how laws purporting to regulate money in politics work, and they get very wary.”
Smith added that critics will question the provenance of Take Back Our Republic, whose leaders — including McKinnon, GOP strategist Juleanna Glover and former FEC commissioner Trevor Potter — have been involved in discussions with groups on the left about how to rally broader political support for campaign finance issues.
McKinnon said the organization is solely the product of conversations he has had with fellow Republicans and precedes any talks he has had with liberal activists.
“I am going to talk to anybody who wants to talk about this issue, and I will continue to do so,” he said. “But I care about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, and that’s why I’m trying to build a movement on the right.”
The group, which pledges to reveal all its donors, says it received its initial backing from the Stuart Family Foundation, established by Robert Douglas Stuart Jr., a former Quaker Oats chief executive. Stuart, who also served as President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Norway, died in May.
GOP attitudes toward campaign finance regulations have changed drastically since the days of Barry Goldwater, who argued that strict rules were necessary to preserve the integrity of the political process.
In the past decade, Republican opposition to new restrictions has mounted in the wake of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which reined in the ability of parties of bring in big dollars. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a group of conservative donors last year that when President George W. Bush signed the act into law it was “the worst day of my political life.”
Republicans were quick to embrace new avenues for big-money spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and have largely resisted efforts to require more disclosure of politically active nonprofit groups. That resistance hardened after a scandal in which the Internal Revenue Service was found to have been inappropriately targeting certain tax-exempt groups for extra scrutiny.
But Pudner said he is optimistic that he can make the case that the right should change its approach.
“To any conservative saying, ‘Why are you getting involved in that? That’s a liberal issue,’ I would say, ‘I think everyone is starting to realize that money in politics is an issue,’ ” he said.
One of the biggest problems, Pudner said, is the emphasis on finding candidates who can “stay on the phone and ask for money all day.”
“That’s just the wrong skew,” he said. “If your real constituency is anyone with a bigger check, it just seems to break down representative democracy.”
Pudner plans to make his pitch Wednesday morning to a group of conservative activists who gather for a regular meeting convened by Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist. He is also reaching out to his network of contacts across the country and said the reception has been positive, particularly among tea party groups.
“That’s been the slam dunk,” he said. “They’re a pretty quick sell.”
Pudner said his group will offer policy prescriptions that differ from those of liberal organizations. One of the first ideas it will promote is a tax credit for small political donors, an idea taken up in a bill by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) that proposes giving contributors a credit for donations up to $200 and a deduction for donations up to $600.
Take Back Our Republic also seeks to raise from $200 to $500 the amount people could give before their donation would be disclosed, an idea likely to generate some controversy among advocates for greater campaign finance transparency.
“We certainly want full disclosure on all the big dollars, but the first thing is to encourage the small ones, to make people feel they have a say and they are relevant again,” Pudner said.