By Joe Garofoli
In one of his earliest moments of raw candor during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that when big donors like him give politicians money, they “do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
“That’s a broken system,” Trump said during a Republican debate back in August. He piled on by mocking his opponents who pandered to the Koch brothers as “puppets” of the billionaire conservative businessmen.
Yet even as the political polar opposites Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont spent the past year railing on about a “rigged” political system that allows wealthy donors outsize influence, campaign finance reform isn’t the kind of sexy issue that drives voters to the polls.
But a new political action committee called End Citizens United is trying to change that. While several reform organizations have been campaigning for years to rally grassroots support to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations, labor unions and individuals to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, the End committee is taking a more aggressively political approach.
It has already raised more than $11 million in this election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Open Secrets. It anticipates spending at least $18 million, focusing on several key close Senate races in New Hampshire, Ohio, Missouri and elsewhere where incumbent Republicans are balking at overturning the decision or changing the campaign financing system. They feel that replacing Republicans with Democrats in those seats (and with the election of a Democratic president) could mean a better chance of overturning Citizens United.
They’re also active in several House races but feel that their work could do more good in Senate races — especially with Republicans refusing to allow a vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Adding Garland or a left-leaning justice to the bench could tip the high court toward overturning Citizens United. They’ve made that vote a theme of several of their ads on YouTube.
The organization’s leaders point to their polling that showed that reducing the influence of special-interest money ranked on par with lowering health care costs and improving education among voters. (“Protecting America from terrorism” ranked first.) It ranked even higher among the all-important independent voters who will decide the election, with 51 percent of them ranking it as their top priority in a nationwide survey of likely voters conducted in January.
“This is an issue that people care really about when you ask them,” said Tiffany Muller, executive director of End Citizens United.