A political group trying to drive big money out of politics is endorsing three House Democratic candidates — and declaring it an electoral necessity that the party adopt an aggressive message of campaign finance reform.
In a first for the group this year, End Citizens United on Wednesday threw support to House Democratic challengers, breaking from past practice of backing incumbents and Senate candidates.
Each of them — Chrissy Houlahan in a moderate suburban Philadelphia seat, Paul Davis in a traditionally conservative area of Kansas, and Randy Bryce in a Republican-heavy district represented by GOP Leader Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — is attracting national attention from Democrats or liberal activists eager to win House seats next year. The endorsements mean ECU, which earlier this year collected $1.3 million for special election House candidate Jon Ossoff in Georgia, will now raise money for each candidate and could run ads on their behalf.
The ideological diversity of those districts is no accident, say the group’s leaders. The endorsements make a broader point that Democratic candidates running in all types of districts should run embrace a platform of reducing the importance of money in politics.
That’s not a new stance for End Citizens United, whose name is a nod to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Supreme Court decision that helped pave the way for super PACs and other free-spending groups. But the group argues the message has special resonance now for an electorate convinced Washington is in the grip of moneyed interests — and at a time when Democratic candidates are in a desperate search for a fresh approach.
"It has taken on a new meaning and a new importance in voters’ everyday lives," said Tiffany Muller, president and executive director of ECU, in an interview. "They think Washington is more broken than ever."
In the past, Democratic strategists have dismissed the idea of candidates’ campaigning heavily on the idea of reducing the influence of money in politics. Such an argument might be appealing, the thinking goes, but it means candidates have less time to discuss something voters care more about, like jobs or national security.
But Muller, whose group has spent a half-million dollars researching the issue, says candidates should talk about money in politics to prove they’re serious about improving the economy.
"It’s almost like there’s a cost of entry to talking to these voters," Muller said. "Right now they feel like both Democrats and Republicans are too in the pocket of special interests, and they think that’s part of the reason there are stagnant wages, and a lagging economy.
"We need to be talking about economic issues, absolutely," she continued. "We just need to make sure they believe us that we’re actually going to be able to get it done. And unless we change the system, they don’t believe us."
There are signs Democrats agree with ECU’s point of view. On Tuesday, Davis highlighted the importance of driving money out of politics in a speech declaring his candidacy in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District.
"When lawmakers are bought and paid for by special interests, they forget where they come from," Davis said. "They stop listening to their constituents and start taking marching orders from the lobbyists who paid for their political campaigns. Changing the system is how we give you back your voice in your government. It’s how we restore accountability to Congress."
National Democratic operatives also signaled their support, suggesting it’s the kind of issue that can unite the party’s candidates whether they’re running in red or blue districts.
"You’re seeing candidates running on a bold reform message, and it’s important to recognize that’s a message that works in any district we’re targeting," said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It resonates on either end of the ideological spectrum and for everybody in between.”
ECU’s budget for this election is $35 million, up from $25 million last cycle. Already, it’s raised about $1 million for its endorsed candidates (in addition to the money raised for Ossoff).
Democrats have struggled to adopt a campaign finance message in recent years because the party has its own network of super PACs, exposing its candidates to charges of hypocrisy if they urge campaign finance reform while benefitting from those groups.
Muller said Democrats can avoid that pitfall by simply saying they want to change the system while Republicans want to protect it.
But she did warn candidates to steer clear of mentioning the Citizens United case itself, or for that matter, any wonky details about campaign finance reform. Better to stick with a broad message that voters understand.
"If we talk about it as Citizens United, we’re going to lose," Muller said. "We shouldn’t talk about it as Citizens United. Only 15 percent of people know what that is."