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Mayday PAC Defends Its Campaign After Most of Its Candidates Lose

Campaign finance reform PAC tries to find silver lining in Tuesday drubbing.

Mayday PAC, the Silicon Valley-funded “Super PAC to end all Super PACs” offered a defense Friday of its efforts to make campaign finance reform a major campaign issue even though most of its candidates lost Tuesday.

Mayday’s leadership argued they showed politicians that voters care about getting big money out of politics and, in a controversial fight with powerful Michigan Republican Fred Upton, could make a difference — mostly by making Upton spend money he might not have otherwise had to spend if Mayday hadn’t bought $2.15 million in TV ads trashing him.

Mayday raised about $10.6 million and lost six of eight races.

The two Mayday candidates who won — conservative North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones and Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallaga, a former state lawmaker – both did it mostly without Mayday’s help. In both races, the candidates faced tough primary challengers, but Mayday didn’t get involved in either race until shortly before voters went to the polls.

“2014 was our opening move in the fight. In 2016, armed with the progress and lessons from this cycle, our reform movement will be even stronger,” Mayday PAC co-founder Larry Lessig wrote in a memo to supporters.

Larry Lessig

In a separate Tumblr post Saturday morning, Lessig sounded a bit despondent and noted that “first and obviously, we did not win. Even the one race we did win Tuesday, we did not win. (Walter Jones was going to win regardless of what we did.)”

Not surprisingly, the Harvard Law professor got a tad upset earlier in the week after Politico wrote a story about his PAC’s election results entitled “How to Waste $10 Million.”

Moving forward, the real question is whether some of Mayday’s wealthy finance and Silicon Valley supporters will be willing to chip in millions more given Mayday’s losing record.

Mayday reported collecting more than 60,000 small-dollar donations but the bulk of its funding came from a smaller, wealthier group of backers, including investor Sean Parker, former Stride Rite president Arnold Hiatt and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Lessig laid out the PAC’s lessons learned in a memo Friday. Mayday had previously declined to talk about its defeats other than say it would “report back when we know something meaningful.” Here’s an excerpt:

“This election taught us some important lessons, and highlighted one important constraint.

First, reform is important, but partisan loyalty is more important when voters see control of a legislative chamber at stake: The data demonstrate that we could make the issue of corruption salient to voters, and thereby move the approval ratings and positive and negatives of candidates on the basis of reform. But especially in the current partisan environment, that movement was not enough to resist strong partisan voting.

Second, it is easier to win voters in safe seats than in partisan battle ground seats: Following from the first lesson, we saw a significant difference in the willingness of both Republicans and Democrats to support the issue of reform in safe, rather than divided, seats. Though we didn’t have enough opportunities in primaries to prove this point, the data suggest that it is much easier to rally both Democratic and Republican voters to reform, when the voters don’t perceive their decision as affecting the ultimate likelihood of their party’s candidates to prevail in the general election. Put differently, if partisanship doesn’t matter — because the seat is a safe seat anyway — voters are more willing to be moved on the basis of reform.

Third, transparency has its costs: MAYDAY.US committed to full transparency about its donors (over $200). That commitment was costly. Because our large contributors were known, it was easier for at least one powerful incumbent to leverage his power against our contributors.

Fourth, reform requires a candidate: We were proud of the candidates we supported, but the strongest races were with candidates willing to openly and vigorously champion the issue we pressed. This is a difficult challenge, given the unwillingness of most media to even raise the issue. In the New Hampshire Senate Primary, for example, even though our candidate was the only Republican running for Senate _in the nation _who had made campaign funding an issue, not a single question in the one debate asked candidates about this issue. Victory will require Zephyr-Teachout-like candidates passionate on the issue, and a willingness among candidates to force the issue into the campaign.

Fifth, victory is not the only motivator: We entered the races we did to win, but we obviously recognized with at least some of the races we entered that victory wasn’t likely. But our objective is to create an incentive sufficient to motivate a majority in Congress to get on the right side of reform. In the four biggest races we entered, our intervention was a significant tax on our opponent, forcing him to spend significantly to neutralize the effect of our campaign. The threat of that tax will motivate other candidates to avoid the risk of a similar fight.

Sixth, and finally, bandwidth is limited: However difficult it was to persuade voters, it was just as difficult to get the media to understand the strategy of our campaign. The simple binary framing of electoral politics makes is hard to demonstrate the effect of interventions within the margin. In 2012, for example, Karl Rove had a powerful impact on American politics, even if he won no elections, because his interventions restricted the options of candidates on the other side. Yet this truth is hard to convey in a framework were the only measure of success is whether a candidate has won or lost.”

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