Veteran Republican Rep. Fred Upton appeared to be cruising toward victory until Harvard law professor Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC targeted him earlier this month, buying $2.15 million in TV ads against him.
Lessig’s PAC targets politicians who don’t back campaign finance reform, but hitting Upton was an odd tactic, not only given his support of the issue but also because of his ties to the tech industry.
If Upton loses next Tuesday, it would be a major victory for the Mayday PAC, which has been funded in large part by tech executives. Singling him out as the “worst of the worst” is a risky bet for Mayday’s tech industry backers, however, given Upton is the top Republican on the Energy & Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over Internet, media and telecom companies.
“This is nothing but a vanity project for Larry Lessig, who is attacking Upton for all the wrong reasons. If I was a donor who gave five dollars to this group or one who gave $500,000 to this group, I’d be asking for my money back,” said one Internet industry lobbyist who declined to speak on the record.
Mayday’s leaders have been unfazed by the criticism. Its strategy in the Upton race highlights the tech industry’s uneven approach to Washington powerbrokering. Silicon Valley has already had a hard time recently convincing Congress to pass its legislative priorities, including immigration reform, a patent troll bill and limits on government mass surveillance.
Upton’s campaign has been putting out fires since the frustrated candidate told a local newspaper he’d called some of Mayday’s tech funders to complain. (His campaign has since denied either the candidate or his aides called donors.) In an interview, Tom Wilbur, Upton’s campaign manager, would only say that “from Fred’s perspective there’s only two ways to run, unopposed or full-speed ahead.”
Mayday co-founder Lessig made it clear from the start that his “Super PAC to end Super PACs” wanted to make a splash this fall by defeating a high-profile lawmaker. With Upton, the group found its target.
Upton wasn’t the most obvious choice since he has supported campaign finance reform — Mayday’s signature issue — in the past. He voted for the House version of McCain-Feingold, the 2002 campaign finance law that limited big donations to political parties. But he hasn’t done much since, Mayday argues.
“Mayday decided to work to defeat Fred Upton because he is the epitome of the modern corrupt politician,” Lessig wrote in a memo to supporters Thursday.
Mayday’s focus on Upton may have less to do about his limited support of campaign finance reform than a belief that he is vulnerable because he represents a moderate district. Upton’s district in southwestern Michigan voted for President Obama in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote. (The president narrowly lost there in 2012.)
An Upton loss could also backfire on Mayday’s billionaire backers, since he’s a moderate who has been supportive of immigration reform, another tech industry priority.
Two of Mayday’s top funders — investor Sean Parker and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman — are also among the biggest donors to Fwd.us, the Mark Zuckerberg-funded group devoted to immigration reform.
Lessig is mainly responsible for choosing candidates, with advice from Mayday co-founder Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist. Donors aren’t involved in the decision, a Mayday adviser said, although several big donors were told about the decision to oppose Upton before the ad campaign launched.
Mayday PAC has raised $10.6 million from 65,200 donations this year, including thousands of small-dollar contributors. But a significant portion of the money has come from finance industry and tech executives, including Hoffman ($1.15 million), Parker ($500,000), PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel ($150,000) and Ted curator Chris Anderson ($250,000).
Upton supporters argue that Mayday is bipartisan in name only. The group is supporting two Republicans this fall, but is spending a majority of its money to help six Democrats or Independents running against Republicans. Mayday has also given $300,000 to a Super PAC affiliated with the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, run by two former MoveOn.org organizers.
A Mayday adviser said the group spent $2 million earlier this year on a New Hampshire Republican candidate, who lost. He also noted the group has featured Republicans in many of its ads.
Gripes about Mayday’s focus on defeating Republicans probably isn’t going to upset its largest donors since many of them are also Democratic party contributors. Earlier this month — after it began targeting Upton — Mayday picked up a $300,000 donation from Colorado heiress Pat Stryker, as well as an additional million dollars from Hoffman and $200,000 from a new donor: Twitter co-founder Ev Williams.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.