If you can’t join them, beat them. That’s the strategy behind a new political SuperPAC launched in May 2014 by Harvard economics professor Lawrence Lessig. The SuperPAC is named MayDay PAC.
Lessig—an outspoken critic of the negative impact of dark money on political campaigns—is fighting fire with fire by attempting to raise $12 million, which will ultimately be applied to five targeted Congressional races in the 2014 mid-term elections, yet to be chosen. Lessig wants to focus on candidates who are committed to campaign-finance reform. And, by the way, Lessig does, indeed, see the irony of the need to fight big-money’s influence by…raising big money.
According to Think Progress:
Lessig vows that 100 percent of the money will go to candidates who want to reform campaign finance, and all overhead costs will be paid by the directors. Lessig hopes to use the maritime and aeronautical distress signal, “mayday”, as a call to action to end the growing influence that the 1 percent holds over American politics. “Our democracy is held hostage by the funders of campaigns. We’re going to pay the ransom, and get it back,” Lessig said in the launch video. “We want to build a Super PAC big enough to end all Super PACs.”
Lessig’s effort comes as a response to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that opened the floodgates to unlimited and undisclosed campaign donations. Think Progress reports that the 2012 election broke records for outside spending on elections, with over $300 million spent by outside groups that do not have to disclose donor information. The 2014 election is likely to surpass even that sum.
On 2014 Senate elections alone, advertising spending is already 45 percent higher than the previous cycle — and nearly 60 percent of ads are funded by outside groups, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Over two-thirds of ads supporting Republican candidates were bankrolled by outside groups. Democrats are not far behind, with outside groups funding almost half of pro-Democrat ads.
As reported by Moyers & Company, Lessig plans to raise funds using a two-tiered model: He hopes to appeal to a large pool of small donors as well as a smaller pool of deep-pocketed donors. When he launched Mayday PAC, he said that if $1 million was raised—via online crowdsourcing—by the end of May, whatever was raised would be matched by the larger contributors. If Mayday missed its goal, all money would be returned to donors.
The result was eye-popping. Mayday’s servers swooned under the volume of traffic from inspired small donors, and the SuperPAC took in $1 million in its first two weeks. Lessig plans to release the names of the initial donors at the end of May. He has said that their participation reveals an across-the-spectrum interest in reforming campaign finance. Later in 2014, he will begin the second phase of the crowdsourcing drive, seeking the next $6 million dollars.
It remains to be seen whether Mayday PAC can exert significant influence on an election landscape addicted to deep-pocketed, often anonymous donors. But if Lessig can pull this off, he will have accomplished something—in partnership with grassroots America—that Congress and the courts have been unable—and unwilling—to do.