A Conservative Case for Campaign Finance Reform
Take Back Our Republic’s John Pudner on why Republicans should care about dark money in elections
Typically, calls for campaign finance reform come from Democrats and progressives, who argue that more disclosure about campaign donors—especially mega-donors and faceless issue-advocacy groups that sponsor hit jobs on candidates—is good for our elections system. Wisconsin Republicans, on the other hand, just passed a package of bills that will increase the amount of undisclosed money in our elections and also slash the power of the nonpartisan elections watchdog and eliminate prosecutors’ use of John Doe investigations to look into potentially corrupt practices of elected officials.
But this partisan divide doesn’t have to be carved in stone.
John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic and the campaign strategist whose tea party candidate Dave Brat upset the powerful House Whip Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in Virginia last year, offers a compelling case for campaign finance reform from a politically conservative perspective. For Pudner, disclosure is key. If we voters know which donors are supporting specific candidates or sponsoring negative and often misleading ads, then we can use those facts to inform our voting decisions.
Pudner, a Marquette University alum now based in Alabama, stopped by the Shepherd’s offices last week as part of his whistle-stop tour through Wisconsin to talk about Take Back Our Republic’s mission. Here’s an excerpt from our lively and wide-ranging interview.
Shepherd: I thought that all Republicans are against limiting campaign finance regulations in any way because they limit one’s First Amendment rights. But you are solidly conservative and you’ve concluded that Republicans have a real interest in supporting some reforms. What is your organization all about?
Pudner: I formed Take Back Our Republic after running conservative campaigns for more than 20 years. We see the same problems within Republican primaries all over, where it’s all big money and your activists are kind of pushed aside. So I’d seen that trend. We wanted to make the case to conservatives that there are reasons that they should be for campaign finance.
In the current Wisconsin bills [that passed the Legislature last week] the two concerns are disclosure and issue advocacy. I don’t mind the [donation] limits being increased. That’s not an issue for us as long as everything is disclosed. The problem is when you invite money to be hidden, that’s what leads to corruption. Because the voter can’t evaluate the money that’s being given.
Also, the bill moves [the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board] to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) model, with the half-Democratic and half-Republican board. The FEC hasn’t been able to pursue anything for decades. Whatever frustrations the Republicans have with the current accountability board, going to a model that has clearly shown to not work is terrible. Those are the two big reasons why I wish they had been voted down.
Shepherd: The new bill allows candidates, who are subject to limits on their direct donations, to be able to coordinate with dark-money issue-advocacy groups that can take in unlimited, undisclosed funds. Is this a good idea?
Pudner: No, and the big reason is because this money is not disclosed. I might not have as big of an issue with it if all of the money going into issue advocacy was disclosed. But when the money is hidden there, you put all of your incentive in giving money to the third-party groups. I think there’s something to be said for encouraging direct giving because you can hold [candidates] accountable. Normally progressives will talk about the Koch brothers. But let’s look at Michael Bloomberg. Michael Bloomberg just put a bunch of money into some Virginia races and it became an issue, but that’s because it was all transparent. So conservatives were able to say hey, it’s Bloomberg, a New Yorker we don’t like, who’s putting all of this money in [to Democrats who support gun control]. But the fact that it was disclosed made it a legitimate issue for voters.
Shepherd: The new Wisconsin regulations also get rid of the requirement that donors must disclose their employers because the bill’s sponsors said they were concerned about the employers facing retaliation. Is that a real concern?
Pudner: I do think there’s a legitimate issue they’re addressing. I don’t like the idea of retribution, I think it cuts down on free speech. But we always want more disclosure so I would wish they had gone about it in a different way. One piece of legislation we’re trying to get drafted federally is that you can’t fire someone because of a political contribution. I think that would be a better approach.
Shepherd: When you don’t have to disclose your employer it’s difficult if not impossible to tell which companies are getting perks from donating to specific elected officials.
Pudner: It’s that kind of transactional giving that I’m worried about. If all giving were ideological I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with what the limits are. But it’s the transactional giving. As conservatives we have to realize that there’s a price that we pay for this. If someone’s business model is to pump millions into candidates and then they get large tax credits or benefits, then you wonder why we have such huge deficits and why state budgets are crumbling and why Illinois can’t pay their lottery winners. It’s transactional giving.
Shepherd: We’ve been told that recent court decisions, such as Citizens United, have made our campaign finance regulations pretty much unenforceable. Is it possible to enact campaign finance regulations that the courts will uphold?
Pudner: It may be that there were some provisions in state law that were problematic. But even in the Citizens United case, the flagship for all of this, even there they all said look, disclosure is a perfectly legitimate way to monitor this. My problem is that people say because of Citizens United we can’t do this and we have to change that but that doesn’t excuse hiding issue advocacy money. I think sometimes people use a court case to say we need new legislation. But there’s no reason to have less disclosure. If anything there should be more.
Shepherd: Do elected officials have any incentive to change the system when they seem to benefit from loose regulations?
Pudner: The first couple of months [of the organization], that was the pain that I was feeling. I finally figured out how to put it in the terminology of elected officials and political operatives. I said, “Do you really want your opponent to hide a bunch of money if they decide to suddenly hit you over the head?” That at least piqued their interest. If your opponent suddenly had $1 million and you don’t know where it’s coming from and you’re getting attacked—to flip it, to have that threat out there.
The other part is that I think the elected officials, at least at the federal level, are starting to get resentful that they don’t control their own campaigns. Having been in the campaign business, my friends call me and say, hey I just got this campaign and they’ll either say I’m inside or I’m outside. Meaning, “I got the candidate contract” [and they’re on the inside] or “I got the Super PAC contract or the third-party contract” [and they’re on the outside]. The funny thing is that recently when they say I got the contract from the inside they’re depressed because only a small portion of the money spent in a lot of these races is spent by the campaign. So that’s like the backup choice. The real campaigns are run by these third-party groups and the candidates resent that they can’t control the money. Leadership goes to them and says this is what you have to do because of the way we’re controlling all of the money spent to re-elect you.
So if the big hidden money is from the opponents who might kill them and it’s from the leadership they secretly resent, that’s a real opportunity. That’s why we just walked around the Hill and we had a couple dozen Republicans who were really open on campaign finance and it was because of that, that they felt resentful. They can’t speak out and they’re always under someone’s thumb and they don’t always want to vote rank and file.