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Campaign Finance Reform PAC Wants to Be a Player in 2016

Bennet is one of two Senate race endorsements End Citizens United PAC has made so far this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Bennet is one of two Senate race endorsements End Citizens United PAC has made so far this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A new campaign finance reform political action committee expects to be among the top five outside groups to assist campaigns this cycle.

End Citizens United PAC has raised more than $2 million from its online supporters since it formed in March and says it’s on track to raise $25 to $30 million to funnel through a yet-to-be-created independent expenditure arm.

The group is hoping to grow its ranks when it begins renting Ready for Hillary’s email list this week. That “partnership,” Communications Director Richard Carbo told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, “highlights our legitimacy.”

Its goal is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which deregulated corporate and union spending for or against specific candidates, and the 2014 decision in McCutcheon vs. FEC, which struck down two-year aggregate limits on how much individuals can donate to candidates, parties and PACs.

And that’s where End Citizens United’s electoral involvement comes into play: Besides supporting states’ clean elections movements, such as one in Maine this summer, the group wants to help elect candidates at the congressional level who would support such an amendment and other campaign finance reforms.

Few Electoral Results Last Cycle

It’s not a new idea. Despite garnering widespread media attention last cycle, Mayday PAC, a super PAC that spent money to elect candidates in favor of ending super PACs (and money against those who didn’t), achieved few electoral results for the $10 million it spent.

Our whole approach is different,” Carbo said of comparisons to other outside groups that have made campaign finance reform a priority.

Among the candidates that End Citizens United are endorsing are:
Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
California Rep. Pete Aguilar
California Rep. Ami Bera
California Rep. Julia Brownley
California Rep. Scott Peters
California Rep. Raul Ruiz
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos
New Hampshire Rep. Ann McLane Kuster
Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan
Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

“We are funded by grassroots supporters,” Carbo said, and “have had tremendous success in activating them.”

So far, 325,000 people have signed the group’s online petition calling for a constitutional amendment and 950,000 people have engaged with the group in some way online.

The average contribution is about $14. A review of its Federal Election Commission filing shows that many of its donations have come from ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising site, as well as from repeat individual donors writing multiple small-dollar checks.

“We are lucky enough to have the resources to highlight these issues on a much larger scale,” Carbo said.

But advertising its candidates’ support for campaign finance reform won’t be the group’s only message this cycle. Expect End Citizens United to promote its endorsed candidates in other ways, too.

This issue is great with the base,” Carbo said of campaign finance reform. “But the number one priority is that we’re interested in electing the member.” It may take “many different messages,” Carbo added, to get that person elected.

Although Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have expressed support for more transparency and disclosure for big-spending groups, as well as overhauling the FEC, End Citizens United is backing only Democrats.

“Even though many Republican and independent voters agree that undisclosed political spending is out of control, Republican leadership in Congress is standing squarely in the way of overturning this disastrous Supreme Court decision,” the group states on its website. Most recently, Republicans tried to insert into the draft of a must-pass spending bill a provision that would relax coordination rules between candidates and political parties.

‘Plenty More’ Endorsements to Come

Most of the group’s endorsements hail from seats that the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates as either Safe Democrat or Favored Democratic. It’s also endorsing in the Wisconsin Senate race, which is rated Tossup, and Colorado’s Senate race, which is rated Leans Democrat.

“This list is by no means finished,” Carbo said, adding that once an independent expenditure arm is created, “you’ll see plenty more” endorsements in more competitive elections.

Senior advisers Valerie Martin and Reed Adamson are, respectfully, veterans of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2006 and Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider’s 2012 campaigns.

Democrats must net 30 seats to win control of the House and 5 seats to retake the Senate next year. Even if the PAC helps elect more Democrats, passing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate.

“With each cycle, you can bring more and more people into the fray,” Carbo said, acknowledging that passing an amendment to overturn Citizens United “is not going to be done overnight.”

“While our end goal is to overturn Citizens United, there are several things we can do along the way,” Carbo said, pointing to smaller reforms that would “bring more accountability and transparency.” But Democrats who have introduced public financing legislation this year have acknowledged that that kind of reform isn’t likely to move forward in the 114th Congress.

At the presidential level, the group’s use of Ready for Hillary’s contact list does not imply an endorsement of Clinton.

And what about Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who founded Mayday PAC in 2014 and announced on Tuesday that he’s exploring a referendum candidacy for president?

“We are looking to do anything and everything we can to highlight this issue, and if that’s what he feels he needs to do to highlight the issue, that’s great,” Carbo said.


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