This morning, both Mayday PAC's new home page and a front page New York Times article reveal that Mayday PAC (Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's controversial PAC-to-end-all-PACs) has picked the first two of an anticipated five 2014 candidates it will support with its $12 million in combined grassroots and zillionaire cash: Democrat Staci Appel's race against Republican David Young in Iowa's 3rd congressional district, and Republican Jim Rubens' primary bid against fellow Republican Scott Brown for New Hampshire's U.S. Senate seat. Join me below to unpack the subtleties and implications of Mayday's inaugural choices.
Mayday PAC, which seeks to reform campaign finance by promoting candidates of either party who will support reform legislation to end the overwhelming influence of PAC money in U.S. elections, is faced with the challenge of walking a tightrope in choosing precisely which candidates it will support in 2014. It's $12 million war chest comes about equally from small(ish) online donations and matching funds from an eclectic collection of zillionaires. In assembling this coalition of the willing Mayday intentionally eschews party-based ideology, in principle welcoming with equal avarice money from the left, right, and center alike. But my recent analysis of Mayday's first FEC report reveals that Mayday's online donors are overwhelmingly independent and Democratic voters, with hardly a Republican to be found. Contrariwise, Mayday's zillionaire matching donors -- without whom the PAC couldn't hope to be more than a fine-print footnote in history -- range more broadly, from libertarian-ish rabid conservative Peter Thiel to the deep-blue Democratic billionaire, Vincent Ryan (follow me for my upcoming in-depth analysis of Mayday's top big-money donors).
Agnosticism with respect to party is a fine goal...in principle. But, in practice, Mayday's intention to avoid taking sides along the liberal/conservative divide presents it with a fine mess: if you stand for nothing (ideology-wise), you'll certainly fall for anything. If Mayday supports too many Republican candidates it risks alienating its predominantly liberal small-money grassroots base by achieving a net transfer of wealth from liberal donors to conservative politicians...something unprecedented in the annals of American politics. Similarly, if it supports too many liberal Democratic candidates it must inevitably alienate its more rabidly conservative big-money zillionaire donors, such as Thiel. Oh, what to do, what to do? This quandary undoubtedly contributed to Mayday's recent announcement that it needed "just a little more time" before announcing its first round of choices. And with today's announcement of its first two picks, we can now see how Mayday plans to navigate this minefield of its own devising.
And the answer is (drumroll, please): 'Favor Republicans, but be sneaky about it.'
Oh sure, one of Mayday's first two beneficiaries, Iowa's Staci Appel, is a Democrat...and a pretty good'n at that: endorsed by Iowa's state chapter of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Emily's List, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Appel's platform includes support for women's reproductive rights, Head Start, public education, alternative energy, and "reducing carbon pollution." Her messaging is smart and nuanced to be palatable to non-too-liberal Iowa voters, with support for "free and fair markets," farm bills, corn-based ethanol, and "eliminating waste." In contrast, her opponent David Young crusades against "the darkness of Washington, D.C." (dog whistles, anyone?) and promotes a balanced budget amendment, zero-based budgeting (i.e., cut existing programs to pay for new ones), a "fairer, flatter" tax code, and dismantling Obamacare.
In short, with its decision to back Iowa's Appel, Mayday has given liberals some reason to smile upon it.
But then there's the little matter of Mayday's other Anointed One, New Hampshire Republican Jim Rubens.
Liberals, progressives and Democrats generally love to hate Rubens' opponent in the upcoming Republican primary, the man who put the 't-bagger' in carpet-bagger: Scott Brown. So, on the surface at least, there's little for progressives or Democrats generally to dislike about this choice. After all, here Mayday is interfering in a Republican primary, not in a head-to-head Republican-versus-Democrat campaign. So a progressive who might not be paying close attention could be forgiven for shrugging at this choice. But the big and important news here is that this is a Senate race, not a contest for a seat in the House -- despite Mayday's many past assurances that its plan for 2014 was to run "independent campaigns in 5 districts across the country." If you thought that meant that it would limit its interference to House campaigns in 2014, you weren't alone...but you were wrong. And harmfully wrong, to boot.
One look at Jim Rubens' platform should be enough to persuade anyone that this guy is the worst sort of teahadist extremist. With its endorsement of his candidacy, Mayday proves itself not merely willing to sleep with the devil, but actually eager to move into Hell and put up new drapes. OK, I can hear someone thinking: "But don't you see, it's a brilliant chess gambit! Replace a photogenic pseudo-populist Republican challenger with a blood-drenched ghoul! That way Shaheen's a shoo-in!" But if there's one thing Lessig and Mayday have been clear about (and, indeed, there is only one thing they've been clear about) it is that Mayday doesn't give a fig about anything other than campaign finance reform. This isn't a double-reverse-twister-with-a-360-backflip gambit to paradoxically strengthen Shaheen's campaign -- it's simply dangerous, clumsy, unprincipled meddling in the name of election reform and all else be damned.
The difference between Mayday interfering in House races and imposing its will in Senate races is like night and day. Democrats have nothing to lose, this cycle, in the House; they don't control the House today, and they probably haven't an ice cube's chance in hell of doing so after November. But Mayday's endorsement of a Republican in the New Hampshire senate primary is another thing entirely. For progressives and Democrats, everything hangs in the balance in this election: if Democrats lose control of the Senate (and if pundits agree on anything, it is that that is a real possibility) then the consequences for our democracy will be disastrous. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress we can looks forward to nothing but endless impeachment theater, overrides of Presidential vetoes, and truly evil legislative initiatives.
Continued Democratic control of the Senate may well hang on a single race. By backing a candidate in the New Hampshire Republican senate primary, Mayday telegraphs its intention to back the Republican, Rubens, in November as well, should he win that primary. After all, even a Harvard professor isn't la-la enough to throw millions into a primary race and then fail to follow through by continuing to back its guy in the election campaign.
Mayday's carefully crafted optics -- coming out of the gate backing one Democrat and one Republican -- is nothing like the balanced, non-ideological approach it hopes we will take it to be. It is a stab at the heart of progressive hopes for this November's election.
Want a Republican Senate? Then donate to Mayday PAC. Otherwise, raise your voice and join the battle to oppose Mayday's playing with dynamite on a crowded sidewalk.