TIME 2014 Election

Secret Koch Event Audio Could Be Gift for Senate Democrats

Koch Brothers Protest
Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally before delivering a 500,000-signature petition urging the Tribune Co. management to reject any offers by the Koch Brothers to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper outside the newspaper headquarters in Los Angeles on May 29, 2013. Damian Dovarganes—AP

It's not what Republican candidates said that has Democrats salivating, but who they said it to

There was little revealed in the new, illicitly recorded audio tapes of top Senate Republican candidates addressing a group of high-dollar Republican donors, but their very existence may give Democrats a needed boost going into the fall’s midterm elections.

On Tuesday, The Nation released audio of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressing a June meeting in Dana Point, Calif. convened by the Koch Brothers, the billionaire energy magnates who have become Democratic bogeymen this fall. Early Wednesday, the Huffington Post followed with audio from a trio of Senate hopefuls: Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, and Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner.

The muffled surreptitiously-recorded audio from the closed-door summit is hard to make out, not that it matters. McConnell repeated his longstanding opposition to campaign finance restrictions. Ernst and Cotton thanked the donors at the confab for their support. Gardner not-so-subtly suggested that their outside money efforts would decide his fate. None of this is news to anyone, but the optics of the candidates appearing to kowtow to the Kochs is enough to send Democrats into overdrive.

For months Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and an array of outside groups have tried to turn the Koch brothers into household names. “Republicans are addicted to Koch,” Reid declared in March on the Senate floor. The DSCC, which owns kochaddiction.com has placed the the billionaires at the center of their midterm messaging, arguing GOP candidates are beholden to the donors at the expense of their states. Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, funded by the Democrats’ own high-dollar donors, is blasting GOP candidates on the air for their ties to the Kochs.

The Democratic message has long had two aims: drive up Democratic fundraising, while turning swing voters away from Republican candidates. On the first front, the effort has clearly been successful. Senate Democrats maintain a strong fundraising advantage over Republicans, while their outside efforts have progressed mightily since 2010. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidates have managed to maintain polling advantages as the fall campaign heats up.

“It makes it much harder for them to try to hide their agenda,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky. “Stuff like this audio recording helps tie them to their records.”

Barasky wouldn’t preview the virtually guaranteed onslaught of ads to incorporate the latest audio. “I would say that Democrats will continue to tie GOP senate candidates to the highly damaging Koch brothers agenda that they’re all pushing,” he said.

McConnell’s team tried to turn lemons into lemonade, touting the fact that he said the same thing behind closed doors as he does in public. “In contrast to Alison Lundergan Grimes’ failure to defend Kentucky coal from the EPA behind closed doors with Obama donors, Senator McConnell fights for Kentucky wherever he goes. Earlier this summer Grimes failed to utter a word of support after promising Kentuckians she would defend Kentucky coal at a Harry Reid fundraiser and lord knows what she said to Tom Steyer and anti-coal billionaires when she attended their conference in Chicago,” said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.

Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the Democratic attacks are “blatantly hypocritical.” “Harry Reid’s Majority PAC and other Democratic outside groups are outspending Republicans by millions including Put Alaska First – a front group for Reid’s PAC in Alaska where Democrats have poured in more than $5 million in a desperate attempt to save Mark Begich,” she said. “The reality is while Democrats are distracting themselves with their contrived baseless attacks that don’t resonate with voters, Republicans are talking about their solutions and reminding folks that a vote for Democrats like Mark Begich, Mark Udall and Kay Hagan are votes are Harry Reid and Barack Obama’s failed agenda.”

Both audio records were posted by The Undercurrent, a self-described “grassroots political web-show” hosted by Lauren Windsor. The show is affiliated with the progressive Young Turks Internet network, and sponsored by the progressive nonprofit group, American Family Voices. The method of the recording has not been disclosed.

TIME 2014 Election

Few Candidates Fear Mayday, The ‘Super PAC to End Super PACs’

18th Annual Webby Awards - Arrivals
Lawrence Lessig attends 18th Annual Webby Awards on May 19, 2014 in New York, United States. Brad Barket—Getty Images

The Mayday Super PAC, which is bankrolling pro-campaign finance reform candidates and targeting those it sees as barriers to change, recently gave politicians the chance to “inoculate” themselves from the PAC’s wrath by pledging to support reform. Not many took the medicine.

Just 35 of the roughly 2,500 candidates running for House and Senate seats in 2014 (many of the 2,500 are not serious contenders) made the Mayday PAC pledge to support at least one proposal to substantially change the way campaigns are financed in the United States. Mayday PAC provided the list exclusively to TIME.

After raising nearly $8 million in Kickstarter-style online contributions earlier this year, Mayday PAC announced late July the first two candidates which it’s supporting: Staci Appel, a Democrat running for Congress in Iowa, and Jim Rubens, who’s running against former Senator Scott Brown in New Hampshire’s GOP Senate primary.

Mayday PAC then fired what it called a “warning shot” to others.

“If a candidate for Congress wants to be inoculated from being on our target list, there is an easy way to do so: get on the right side of reform,” said Lawrence Lessig, a key founder of the group. Politicians had until 5 p.m. Tuesday, August 5, to commit to reform.

The PAC hopes to raise an additional $5 million from heavyweight donors, giving it a war chest of $12 million for the 2014 midterm election cycle. Mayday PAC has said it will ultimately support five candidates, spending $2 million in each, give or take, depending on the circumstances. In some races, particularly in a congressional election, that sum of money could make to a sizeable impact.

Of the 35 candidates on the list, Mayday PAC has already announced it’s supporting two — one of whom, Jim Rubens, is also the list’s only Republican. One Libertarian and four independents took the vaccine. Many of those who signed are long-shot candidates, like Shenna Bellows, who is polling more than 30 points behind in her quest to unseat incumbent Maine Republican Susan Collins.

There is no indication the PAC would target any specific candidate who failed to make the pledge or that any candidate on the list was at risk of being targeted. Mayday PAC did not contact any campaigns to notify them they might be targeted if they didn’t make the list.

Here’s Mayday PAC’s list of those who did make the pledge:

House

Staci Appel (D—IA)

Jonathan Barfield, Jr. (D—NC)

Ann Callis (D—IL)

Roy Cho (D—NJ)

Forrest Dunbar (D—AK)

Michael Eggman (D—CA)

Christina Gagnier (D—CA)

Tom E. Guild (D—OK)

Alanna Kay Hartzok (D—PA)

Mary M. Headrick (D—TN)

Jeffrey Kurzon (D—NY)

Drew Eugene Leavens (D—CA)

Arthur Lieber (D—MO)

Seth Moulton (D—MA)

Jim Mowrer (D—IA)

Patrick J. Murphy (D—IA)

Gloria Negrete McLeod (D—CA)

Richard Nolan (D—MN)

Randall Olsen (D—IL)

Douglas Owens (D—UT)

Joseph Emil Perske (D—MN)

Kathleen Rice (D—NY)

Jason Ritchie (D—WA)

Martha Robertson (D—NY)

Carol Shea-Porter (D—NH)

Marc Veasey (D—TX)

Kelly Westland (D—WI)

James Isaac Woods (D—AZ)

Craig Richard Bowden (Libertarian—UT)

James Ross Hinton (I—CA)

Luther Lee (I—FL)

Paula Darlene Moser-Bartlett (I—FL)

Senate

Shenna Bellows (D—ME)

Jim Rubens (R—NH)

Larry Pressler (I—SD)

Becca Stanek contributed to this report.

TIME 2014 Midterm Election

The ‘Super PAC to End All Super PACs’ Is Backing These Candidates

The 18th Annual Webby Awards - Inside
Professor Lawrence Lessig poses backstage at the 18th Annual Webby Awards on May 19, 2014 in New York City. Theo Wargo—2014 Getty Images

And gives Congress an ultimatum before revealing its entire slate

The Mayday Super PAC, a crowdfunded Political Action Committee designed to support pro-campaign finance reform politicians, announced two of the candidates it will support in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections.

The PAC is supporting State Senator Jim Reubens in the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary. It’s also supporting Democrat Staci Appel in the race to represent Iowa’s third congressional district.

Reubens has made “fundamental reform to the way campaigns are funded” a central platform in his campaign, the group said. In that race, the group is also opposing former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who it says opposes several key campaign finance reform measures and supports the lightning rod Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Appel, meanwhile, is also a dedicated campaign finance reformer.

Mayday PAC has said it will support a total of five candidates in this year’s midterms. However, it has left three of the five candidates it will ultimately support unannounced as a “warning shot,” as the group calls it, to other politicians.

“If a candidate for Congress wants to be inoculated from being on our target list,” the group said in a press release Monday, “there is an easy way to do so: get on the right side of reform.”

Mayday PAC says candidates have until 5 p.m. eastern time on August 5 to meet the group’s requirements or else risk being named a target. Whether any candidates will switch their positions on campaign finance reform as a result of the groups’ ultimatum remains to be seen.

The “Super PAC to end all Super PACs” was launched by the academic and campaign finance reform activist Lawrence Lessig. The group has raised $7.7 million to spend influencing key races this year, much of it Kickstarter-style through small donations.

TIME Campaign Finance

Hank Aaron Swings for Democrat Michelle Nunn in Fundraising Plea

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Former Atlanta Brave Hank Aaron speaks during a ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of his 715th home run at Turner Field, Atlanta, on Apr 8, 2014 Daniel Shirey—USA Today Sports

Hank Aaron calls the fundraising push a “money bomb”

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron has stepped up to the plate for Michelle Nunn, a Democratic candidate running for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat.

Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1974, emailed Nunn’s supporters urging them to contribute more money to the campaign. The email, unsurprisingly, was laced with baseball references from the 80-year-old.

The Huffington Post had some of the details from the message:

The 755 home runs I hit in my time mean a lot to me, but there’s another record that I’m proud to hold, the all-time record for runs batted in (RBI).

You see, games aren’t won or lost on the efforts of one person, they rest on the shoulders of team. And every RBI is a result of teammates working together to achieve one common goal — victory.

If each one of us steps up to the plate and contributes during this 24-hour fundraising effort called a “money bomb,” I know we can bring home the single-biggest fundraising day of Michelle’s campaign.

Now that’s an RBI, I’d like to add to my records. Will you help me do it?

Aaron joins Vice President Joe Biden as another high-profile supporter of Nunn. A political newcomer, Nunn will vie for the open Senate seat with new Republican nominee and businessman David Perdue in November. The result of the Georgia race could have a bearing on control of the Senate, which currently comprises 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents.

[Huffington Post]

TIME Campaign Finance

Janelle Monae Has a Secret Video of Barack Obama Dancing

Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" on Monday, May 5, 2014, in New York. Charles Sykes—Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

"She can blackmail me at any time," Obama says

If R&B artist Janelle Monae scores a Cabinet post before President Barack Obama leaves office, we’ll know why.

Obama’s three-day West-coast fundraising tour for Democratic candidates took him to the Los Angeles home of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes Wednesday, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Monae and Kerry Washington.

At the 450-person fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee — to which tickets started at $1,000 a head — Obama revealed that Monae was in possession of a top secret video of presidential dancing.

“Janelle has performed at the White House, like, 15 times,” Obama told the audience. “There’s going to be an official Janelle Monae room in the White House. We love her. Michelle and I love Janelle. We love her energy. We love her talent. But we most of all love her character. And anybody who gets a chance to talk to her, this is just a remarkable, strong, smart young lady.

“And I have to say nice things about her because she may be the only person in possession of a video in which I try to keep up with her and Usher on the dance floor,” Obama continued. “Now, this is top secret. She has promised that this will never be released. But she can blackmail me at any time.”

Monae called out “I love you!” to the Commander-in-Chief, to which he replied with his trademark “I love you back,” adding, “You do have that video, though, don’t you?”

Monae said she did, prompting the president to ask her to “testify” to his skills. “Now, tell the truth, though, Janelle — I wasn’t bad, though, was I? I’m just saying. Go ahead, testify just a little bit…Let me say I did not drop in splits. But I did bust a move. That I did do.”

Obama then recognized Washington, one of the earliest celebrities to back his 2008 candidacy, for being on his side when many Americans couldn’t pronounce his name correctly. “She pushed when the wagon was stuck in the mud — she was out there,” Obama said. “And she’s just been a great friend. Plus she showed me her baby pictures, and that is one cute baby.”

The West Coast swing has proven to be a controversial one for Obama, both for its timing amid multiple foreign policy crises and the secrecy surrounding fundraising events for two Democratic super PACs. White House officials defended Obama’s decision to continue with the trip despite the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the ongoing conflict in Gaza, saying that the president’s ability to manage the situations would not be impaired by keeping his schedule. While on the trip, Obama called Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday to discuss efforts to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The White House did not make public the list of attendees at the two super PAC fundraisers, one each House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, or what they had contributed to gain access to the president. Reporters were not allowed to attend either session. “Without a doubt, I think we’ve done more to achieve the President’s commitment to transparency than any other previous administration,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz.

Obama returns to Washington late Thursday after another fundraiser for the DNC and delivering a speech on the economy.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 23

1. The border isn’t the problem: A detailed, map-powered breakdown of the real story behind this immigration crisis.

By Zack Stanton in the Wilson Quarterly

2. With campaign finance rules in chaos, major corporations are setting a new standard with voluntary disclosures of political donations.

By Bruce F. Freed and Karl J. Sandstrom in U.S. News and World Report

3. It’s not about political correctness. Racist sports team names harm Native American youth.

By Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips at the Center for American Progress

4. A simple move – replacing individual state bar exams with the Uniform Bar Exam – can bring much-needed reform to the legal profession.

By Baron YoungSmith in Slate

5. Computer modeling and big data are new weapons against disease-carrying insects.

By John Upton in Pacific Standard

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Campaign Finance

If Campaign Ads Told the Truth, They Would Sound Like This

Meet "Honest Gil", a satirical candidate in Kentucky's senate race

+ READ ARTICLE

Ever wonder what politicians would say if they had to always speak the unvarnished truth?

Meet Gil Fulbright, (Or Phil Gulbright. Or Bill Fulbright. Or Phillip Mimouf-Wifarts. You’ll understand once you’ve watched the ad).

“Honest Gil” is a satirical candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Kentucky race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Gil plans to rent a campaign bus, take out billboard and TV ads and show up at campaign events in order to make a spectacle of what is poised to be the most expensive Senate election in American history.

Fulbright will be the face of Represent.Us, a non-partisan movement claiming 450,000 supporters that wants to pass campaign finance and anti-corruption laws to limit the influence of money on Washington. With 26 days left in its Indiegogo campaign to raise money for Fulbright’s shenanigans, the group has already busted through its fundraising goal of $20,000.

The effort is reminiscent of the Mayday PAC, Lawrence Lessig’s new crowd-funded cannibal Super PAC to destroy all Super PACs.

Whatever your position on campaign finance, Fulbright’s commercial is at the very least a funny/tragically spot-on commentary on the state of political discourse in the U.S.

TIME Campaign Finance

IRS to Rubber-Stamp Tax-Exempt Status for Most Charities After Scandal

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies during a hearing before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies during a hearing before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

IRS head touts "efficiencies," but some groups fear fraud

Amid ongoing controversy over its scrutiny of nonprofits, the Internal Revenue Service has decided it will no longer screen approximately 80% of the organizations seeking tax-exempt charitable status each year, a change that will ease the creation of small charities while doing away with a review intended to counter fraud and prevent political and other noncharitable groups from misusing the tax code.

As of July 1, any group that pays a $400 fee and declares on a three-page online form that it has annual income of less than $50,000, total assets of less than $250,000 and is in compliance with the tax-code requirements of a charity will automatically be allowed to accept donations that are tax-deductible for the donors. Previously the groups had to fill out a detailed 26-page form, submit multiple supporting documents and provide a narrative description of their intended activities.

In an interview with TIME, IRS commissioner John Koskinen said the change would result in “efficiencies [that] will translate into a faster and better review” of bigger nonprofits, while clearing a 66,000-application backlog that has resulted in yearlong waits for groups seeking to start a charity. He said the new short form comes with 20 pages of instructions that make clear the requirements and limitations of being a charitable organization. Koskinen said that on the new short form, “people certify that they’ve gone through the instructions” under penalty of perjury.

The IRS rejected the idea of the new Form 1023-EZ in 2012, but using an expedited process this year, adopted the new procedure on the recommendation of a small team composed largely of frontline workers from the scandal-plagued division of exempt organizations, according to the IRS.

Some charitable groups worry the IRS has opened the door to abuse of tax-exempt status that will undermine the credibility of legitimate nonprofits, which are allowed to accept deductible donations under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. “The Form 1023-EZ will increase opportunity for fraud,” said Alissa Hecht Gardenswartz, president of the National Association of State Charity Officials, and will make it harder “to protect charitable assets from fraud and abuse and to ensure that charitable assets are used for the purposes represented to the public.”

Others worry that charities, nominally barred from political activity, will come to serve the same purpose as the powerful nonprofit organizations known as 501(c)(4)s, whose donations cannot be deducted from taxes. This could give an added tax benefit to donors who have recently funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into independent political campaign spending. “What we’ll see is the so-called dark political money that flowed into the (c)(4) world is going to begin to flow into the (c)(3) world,” says Marcus Owens, who was the director of the exempt-organizations division at the IRS from 1990 to 2000, and is now in private practice at the law firm of Caplin & Drysdale.

The change will result in approximately 40,000 to 50,000 fewer (c)(3) applications for the exempt-organizations division to review each year, Koskinen says. The division, whose main office is in Cincinnati, has been at the center of the IRS scandal over alleged political scrutiny of right-wing 501(c)(4) groups under then-head Lois Lerner. That scandal centers on shortcuts the office developed to identify (c)(4) groups for further screening, including screens for groups with the names that suggested an association with the Tea Party movement.

The current legal interpretation of tax regulations allows so-called (c)(4)s to engage in political activities as long as they don’t spend more than 50% of their money on politics. In the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, those same groups earned the ability to buy campaign ads in federal elections, and tax laws allowed them to conceal the identity of their donors. Since the ruling, the number of applications to become a (c)(4) has doubled, to around 1,000 per year, Koskinen says. In the 2012 campaign, (c)(4)s spent approximately $300 million dollars on politics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Much of that money was spent attempting to motivate voters by advertising positions on specific issues that divide candidates. Owens, the former IRS official, says such activity can be cast under the mission of a (c)(3) devoted to educational, religious or other permitted activities, opening the possibility of deductible dark money. “The candidate links to the issue, and then the tax-exempt organization’s job is to find the voters and make sure they know the message and hear it loud and clear up to election day,” says Owens. “That’s what the (c)(4)s were doing, but that kind of activity could be just as easily in a (c)(3), but it would have the added advantage of having tax deductibility attached to it,” Owens says.

Democratic defenders of the IRS and the exempt-organizations office say both have been deprived of resources, as the overall IRS budget was cut by nearly $950 million, or around 7.8%, from 2010 to 2013, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. In an April 2014 report, the GAO found the cuts had been offset through savings and efficiencies, and by reducing, delaying or eliminating services. Koskinen says budget cuts didn’t play a role in the change in charity rules. “Obviously we are resource-constrained everywhere across the agency,” he says, but “we would want to do this anyway.”

While charity groups agree the old process for receiving tax-exempt status was too cumbersome, they and others worry that now organizations with no true charitable purpose will seek to become charities. “It’s easier to get tax-exempt status under 1023-EZ than it is to get a library card,” says Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the Council of Nonprofits. As a result, Delaney says, bad actors “will be able to operate in the name of the charity, and the IRS will never be the wiser because they’re not looking at the underlying documentation.”

Koskinen says such worries are overblown. “There’s a faith that if someone has been forced to do more paperwork they’re going to be less nefarious,” he says. He says that to prevent potential abuse, the IRS will take samples of applications to see what percentage are being filled out incorrectly, and will monitor the number of applications to see if it spikes suspiciously as a result of the new rules.

Owens says the IRS may not be able to differentiate between truly small charities and those that knowingly plan to grow beyond $50,000 in annual income. “I haven’t seen any mechanism where the IRS would be legally able to go after an organization that applied within the EZ process but then fortune shined on them,” Owens says. He also says that because of outdated software, the IRS won’t be able to track active charities back from its master file to their originating documents. An IRS official speaking on background acknowledged the software problem.

Charities complain that the change was made with little consultation from their representative lobbying organizations. The IRS sped its enactment this year by routing the change through the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for public comment under the Paperwork Reduction Act, rather than through the normal public-comment process at the IRS, nonprofit officials contend. “I just wish the IRS had used a more inclusive process from the beginning,” says Delaney of the Council of Nonprofits.

The IRS studied a simplified tax-exempt form in 2012 but rejected the idea. The group that looked at the idea, made up of outside lawyers and experts in tax-exempt organizations, said that filling out the longer form forced groups to better understand the requirements of being a charity. The group said it “may also be easier to embezzle from a small charity,” so they should be subject to more, not less, oversight.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

Lawrence Lessig on His Super PAC to End Super PACs

18th Annual Webby Awards - Arrivals
Lawrence Lessig attends 18th Annual Webby Awards on May 19, 2014 in New York, United States. Brad Barket—Getty Images

The election reformer talks about getting jilted by Comedy Central and why he’s probably not coming after Mitch McConnell. Yet

Law professor Lawrence Lessig’s plan to reform campaign finance in America by blowing the system up from the inside has always been such a longshot that even he is astonished by its fundraising success so far.

The Mayday PAC project launched in May with an initial fundraising goal of $1 million, followed by a $ 5 million goal, all raised through Kickstarter-like pledges. The PAC would then use the money to support five candidates in 2014 committed to serious campaign finance reform—a Super PAC to destroy Super PACs.

The goal was still distant as the July 4 deadline approached, but in its final hours supporters rallied: More than 50,000 people have donated $7.6 million to date. And unlike most Kickstarter campaigns, that’s without offering any swag.

“We attracted this money without offering any t-shirts or any buttons or any anything,” Lessig told TIME.

A matching donation of $5 million still to come should push Mayday PAC’s unexpectedly brimming war chest over $12 million, giving it more than $2 million to spend apiece on five elections.

Lessig spoke with TIME about the PAC’s unlikely success, the challenges it still faces and how it’s choosing which candidates to support.

TIME: That was an ambitious fundraising goal—how are you feeling?

Lawrence Lessig: It was an insane fundraising goal and I’m incredibly surprised and happy that people rallied the way they did. It was really extraordinary.

Were you worried toward the end?

Yeah, I was of course worried at the end. Our plan was we would do the first round and that would attract the attention of somebody like Comedy Central, which would get us the exposure we needed to win on the second round. Because what we knew is if we got before enough people’s eyeballs we would get the support we needed. But as time wore on it was clear Comedy Central was not going to jump into the breach, so we needed to rely on just plain old peer-to-peer, Internet activism. And that in the end seemed to work.

In reforming campaign finance you face not just the institutional impediment of Congress but precedent set by the Supreme Court. What’s the plan?

I actually don’t think there’s any constitutional impediments to the first step reforms that we’ve talked about. We want to change the way campaigns are funded and the Supreme Court has been quite clear that Congress has the power to change the way campaigns are funded through voluntary public funding. Now, what we support is not the traditional public funding—where the government writes a check to fund your campaigns—but bottom up public funding, where it’s matching funds like John Sarbanes Government By the People Act, or a voucher program. Either way this is a public funding program that would help people by creating small dollar systems that they could fund winning campaigns with. That’s completely constitutional and would create the first step toward building a Congress that might address any constitutional problems.

In picking candidates will there be a litmus test beyond a commitment to substantial campaign finance reform.

No. There’s no litmus test for them beyond substantial reform, fundamental reform and the reform we’ve been talking about: changing the way campaigns are funded.

Now, in picking the first five though. that’s a necessary condition but not sufficient. We need to pick races that are exciting enough, difficult enough, challenging, so that when we win people will say it’s amazing they won and that they won on this issue. So, for example, Mitch McConnell’s race would be fun to win but it wouldn’t be clear why anybody won because there are a thousand reasons why Mitch McConnell might be defeated. So that wouldn’t be an interesting race for us but we’re looking for races where when we win people will say it’s extraordinary that they won on the basis of this issue in that district.

You’d support a viable candidate of any political stripe, assuming they’re not too far off the mainstream?

I’m not so concerned about mainstream. I’m concerned about viability and commitment to fundamental reform. Those two elements are the driving factors initially. Next cycle, assuming we’re successful and we create excitement around this issue and can begin to recruit the kind of support we need to win in 2016, it’s about winning in every district we need to get a majority in Congress, but this time it’s about picking those victories in a way that is generative for this more ambitious task in 2016.

TIME Campaign Finance

‘PAC to End PACs’ Hits $5 Million Funding Goal

Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School, speaks during the 2014 WIRED Business Conference (BizCon) in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The upstart Mayday PAC that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics has crossed its fundraising goal of $5 million, according to a Friday email from founder and academic Lawrence Lessig.

Mayday PAC, which seeks to fund politicians that will pass restrictions on campaign funding, had raised just $75,000 by the beginning of May, but has been expanding rapidly. A total of 49,490 people have contributed to the Mayday PAC, reflecting a large number of smaller-sized contributions averaging around $100 each.

The group has also received endorsements from several notable figures, including actors Jason Alexander and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The group arises amidst much frustration over the prevalence of money in political campaigns, with a small percentage of donors holding an increasing share of the influence over elections. Just 196 people (that’s 0.000063 percent of the country’s population) donated 80 percent of the total Super PAC money raised in 2012, according to Lessig.

“The frustration with the mess we call Congress is palpable, and the desperate urge to do something about it is raw,” said Lessig in his email Friday.

Mayday PAC still has an uphill battle to fight despite its fundraising success. Few members of Congress have expressed the political will to tackle campaign finance reform, leading many observers to be skeptical about the PAC’s chances of changing Capitol Hill.

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