Jim Rubens is an unlikely political savior, but the tech-funded Mayday PAC is betting the unknown New Hampshire Republican can pull off a miracle.
Rubens, a former Republican New Hampshire state senator, is trying to beat former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown in a Sept. 9 primary for the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November.
It hasn’t been going so well. By the end of June, Rubens had raised just $82,000 from other people. (He gave his own campaign $506,000.) A recent poll suggested 80 percent of likely voters don’t know who Rubens is, putting him third behind Brown and former two-term Sen. Bob Smith in the primary race.
New Hampshire Republicans may also now see Brown as their best hope for beating Shaheen, thanks to a Granite State Poll released last week that showed him nearly tied for support with the incumbent senator.
But that was before the Mayday political action committee decided to spend upward of $600,000 in television and radio ads to back Rubens, who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998. Co-founded by Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig, the Mayday PAC is spending millions to back candidates who support political contribution limits. The PAC began blanketing the airwaves with ads for Rubens last week, trying to introduce him to likely voters and give him an edge over Brown.
“The PAC’s influence is already helping with Jim’s name ID,” said Brian Tilton, a Rubens campaign spokesman. “We’re seeing some changes in the number of people who recognize his name in the street.”
Could Mayday pull off a surprise upset in New Hampshire that would rock the Republican establishment? Or is it flushing $600,000 away?
With donations from investor Sean Parker, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, the Mayday PAC has raised almost $8 million this year and can afford the loss, at least financially. But the bet may not help the PAC’s effort to be taken seriously by political pros already questioning whether campaign finance reform is an issue that will propel voters to the polls.
“As a pollster, you never see this come up as an important issue in people’s minds. It’s usually way at the bottom,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“Rubens suffers from the triple whammy of being unknown, the Republicans who do know him don’t like him that much because he was never part of the club, and turnout is going to be so low in this primary,” he said.
Changing Conventional Wisdom?
Lessig launched the PAC as part of a multi-election cycle effort to elect candidates who have pledged to back laws to limit campaign contributions.
He’s shown the ability to raise money. Whether his PAC can spend it wisely remains an open question. Candidates and political insiders won’t consider the PAC a threat unless it shows it can affect the outcome of a race.
The Mayday PAC will back eight candidates this fall, Lessig says. But only two of the candidates announced so far — Democrats in congressional races in Iowa and New Hampshire — are expected to be in competitive fall races. The PAC is expected to identify its final three candidates as soon as this week.
It’s a tricky balance. The PAC needs to be seen as making the difference in a race by helping push support to its candidate — but the most competitive races tend to attract funding from other outside groups, including national political parties.
“The objective of this 2014 cycle is to disprove the assumption that dominates thinking in Washington, which is that people don’t care about the corruption of their government when they go to the voting booth,” Lessig said.
“If we succeed in producing a huge number of votes from people who think this is a huge issue to address … that’s about trying to change the conventional wisdom,” Lessig said.
The first test for the Mayday PAC comes Tuesday when one of its candidates, Democrat Ruben Gallego, squares off with three other challengers in Arizona’s seventh congressional district, which includes the city of Phoenix. They are vying for a seat left vacant by the retirement of Rep. Ed Pastor, a Democrat.
Gallego is a retired Marine who has served in the Arizona House of Representatives, and his main opponent appears to be former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who was recently endorsed by the Arizona Republic newspaper.
The PAC is spending $150,000 for direct mail and Internet ads in the race, federal election records show, but Lessig acknowledged they didn’t really have enough time to do much here.
Mayday raised its money in early July and only announced some of the candidates it was backing at the end of that month. “We’re trying to engineer something in the district,” he said. “It’s such a short time horizon for us.”
Looking Toward the 2016 Election
Two Democratic Mayday-backed candidates, New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and former Iowa state senator Staci Appel, are expected to be in tight races this fall. Shea-Porter is in a race to defend her seat, while Appel is running for a House seat left open by the retirement of Republican Rep. Tom Latham.
Mayday’s focus on New Hampshire and Iowa — both states that hold early, influential presidential primaries — is a deliberate attempt to get campaign finance reform on the radar screens of local activists. “We’re hoping to push the debate in these critical states, New Hampshire and Iowa, so candidates can’t get through the primary without addressing the issue,” Lessig said.
Lessig declined to name the final three candidates that the PAC will support other than saying the races “should be more interesting because we’re trying to knock out incumbents to send a message.”
But depending on how things go in the next few weeks, two of Mayday’s eight candidates — Rubens and Gallego — could be packing up their yard signs soon.
Another race targeted by the Mayday PAC isn’t seen as particularly competitive.
North Carolina Republican Walter Jones faced a primary challenge from former Bush administration official Taylor Griffin, but Jones won. He’s expected to easily win in November in this heavily Republican district, which includes the northern coastal area and the Outer Banks. His Democratic opponent had just $3,119 in the bank at the end of June, campaign finance reports show.
Mayday’s backing of Jones is more symbolic than anything, said Lessig, since he’s the only Republican House member to support campaign contribution reform legislation.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.