CEDAR RAPIDS — As bad as it is, Lawrence Lessig has no reservations about using a bad, unjust — some say corrupt — campaign finance system to change the way campaigns are funded.
“We’re taking advantage of a system we want changed to bring about change,” said the founder and chairman of Mayday Political Action Committee, which is online at mayday.us.
That’s the tradition of reform movements, the Harvard Law School professor said. When women didn’t have the right to vote, “women pushed men and some men pushed other men to use a system that gave men exclusively the right to vote to change that and give women the right to vote, too.”
That opens the reforms to charges of hypocrisy, said Bruce Nesmith, associate professor of political science at Coe College, “but if the alternative is principled failure followed by obscurity, it seems the only way to fly.”
So Mayday is using the rules that allow super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals and spend it to overtly advocate for or against political candidates, to test its message and strategy in a handful of races this year. Among them is the open seat Iowa 3rd Congressional District race where Mayday is backing Democrat Staci Appel.
Involvement in that race is part of Mayday’s preparation for the 2016 presidential race.
Some reform movements have tried to elect a few members to Congress every two years until there are enough like-minded members to effect change, Lessig said.
“I don’t believe that strategy can work,” he said, “which is why we are talking about the ‘moonshot strategy’ — a massive intervention to bring about the change that is necessary to make it possible to pass the reform we think is needed.”
Mayday wants to win in a handful of races this year “so people in Washington can no longer credibly say money in politics is not an important issue,” Lessig said.
The issue of money in politics is popular across political party lines, according to Chris Larimer, associate professor of political science at University of Northern Iowa, but it has been a “peripheral issue” in recent election cycles.
“I don’t see it overshadowing what is almost always the dominant issue — the economy and jobs, particularly while we are still in a ‘recovery’ phase,” Larimer said.
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Polls have found Americans of all political stripes favor stricter limits on campaign contributions, but there has been little intensity on the issue, said Dianne Bystrom of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. She cites a 2013 Pew Research Center poll that found that campaign finance reform ranked 21st of 22 issues when respondents were asked to name their top priorities for President Barack Obama and Congress.
So Mayday’s message may resonate with voters, but it’s unlikely it will get non-voters to the polls or change the minds loyal Democrats and Republicans, Larimer said.
“But in a close race maybe they won’t need to change that many to have some impact on the outcome,” Nesmith said.
Cornell College Assistant Professor of Politics Hans Hassell is skeptical of Mayday’s strategy of spending $12 million in five targeted races. It’s a sizable amount, he said, but not enough to “flood the race with money.”
“Ultimately, I think their biggest effect is in the news coverage that this will generate and force candidates to engage with this issue,” Hassell said.
In a competitive race like the 3rd District contest a little money may have a big impact even if money in politics is not the central issue, Bystrom said.
“That is, the money Mayday provides to (Appel’s) campaign may be more important than her position on campaign finance reform,” she said.
Bystrom also points out that because both major parties have been successful in raising campaign contributions, “elected officials have little incentive to fix a system through which they were elected.”
That won’t dissuade Lessig, who said he is “old enough not to care about conventional wisdom because it’s always wrong.”
“I’m not in this except with the belief that our message will have resonance,” he said.