Super-PAC Ducks Fight With Darth Vader

The super-PAC to end all super-PACs decides not to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell, who has been called "Darth Vader" by campaign finance reformers.
Lawrence Lessig is fundraising to end political spending

Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat trying to unseat Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, must be wondering how her party's leaders could abandon her in the homestretch of such a tight race. She may also be asking: Where in the world is Lawrence Lessig?

Lessig is the Harvard Law School professor turned campaign finance reformer who created a so-called super-political action committee -- Mayday PAC -- to spend large amounts of money on behalf of candidates who want to limit the role of money in politics. Lessig's motto is: "Embrace the irony."

Mayday has backed eight candidates -- but not Grimes, even though she is running against the chief antagonist of campaign finance reformers, the man they call Darth Vader. McConnell vehemently opposes public financing of elections, tighter limits on contributions and spending and more public disclosure. Meanwhile, Grimes supports a constitutional amendment -- Mayday's ultimate goal -- to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that reformers claim has flooded politics with money, even though wealthy donors had no trouble making unlimited donations before the ruling.

Another super-PAC that supports campaign finance reform, Every Voice Action, is spending $1 million to defeat McConnell. But Mayday, which has raised more than $10 million, has sat out the race, even as it squandered almost $2 million supporting Jim Rubens' long-shot challenge to Scott Brown in New Hampshire's Republican Senate primary.

It's easy to see why Lessig is steering clear of Grimes now: She may have done irreparable damage to her campaign by refusing to say whether she had voted for President Barack Obama, and the national party has pulled its advertising for her. But Grimes shot herself in the foot only after Mayday had committed to spending at least $1 million in South Dakota to support Democrat Rick Weiland's bid for Senate.

If Mayday had spent heavily for Grimes before October, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee might have stuck with her. Instead, Mayday is spending on behalf of Weiland, three Democratic congressional candidates in tight races and Greg Orman, the independent running for the Senate in Kansas.

Lessig's goal for the midterm elections is to help a handful of candidates win "so people in Washington can no longer credibly say money in politics is not an important issue." The trouble is, no one in Washington has embraced that position more enthusiastically than McConnell. He once dismissed campaign finance reform by saying that it "ranks right up there with static cling" on voters' list of important issues.

Had Mayday attempted to defeat McConnell, the group could have put the Kentucky Republican's statement to the test. Had they succeeded, it would have been one of the biggest stories of the election. Lessig, fair-haired and blue-eyed, would have played Luke Skywalker to McConnell's Vader.

Instead, no matter how many Mayday-supported candidates win, few in Washington are likely to view the PAC's spending as decisive. In 2012, a pro-campaign finance reform super-PAC created by George Soros' son Jonathan spent $2.4 million attacking eight incumbent Republicans. Seven of them lost. Proponents called it a huge success. But did it strike fear in the hearts of reform opponents? No. And that fear -- the kind wielded by groups such as the National Rifle Association and Club for Growth -- is what reformers are after.

Beating McConnell was Mayday's best opportunity to establish itself as a heavy hitter heading into 2016, when Lessig plans a "moonshot" -- raising a huge amount of money to bring about a takeover of Congress by committed reformers. Talk of that moonshot has helped Lessig attract outsized press attention, leading Walter Shapiro of the Brennan Center for Justice, a campaign finance reform advocacy organization, to dismiss his crusade as "political performance art." Lessig is undoubtedly sincere, but as the Rubens episode showed, he has proved to be a better evangelist than strategist.

In an impassioned plea for donations that kicked off Mayday's fundraising drive, Lessig explained that when a mayday call is issued on the high seas, there is "a moral obligation to lend aid." Grimes' campaign -- abandoned by the national party and vastly outspent by outside interests -- looks increasingly like a ship in distress. Lessig may not have been able to save her, but he will win no medals for valor.

(Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @FSBarry.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.