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Campaign Finance Reformers Skeptical of Doug Hughes' Strategy

Hughes soaks in the support at the courthouse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Douglas Hughes' warning on the corrupting influence of money in politics resonated, but his delivery strategy did not necessarily help the cause.  

The Florida mailman headed to federal court on Thursday for a status hearing on the six charges he faces after landing his gyrocopter on the Capitol's West Lawn, even as key players in the campaign finance debate criticized his flight. "I think you need to separate the stunt from the issue," said Trevor Potter, founding president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. "It's like the protesters who stand up and scream in the Supreme Court," Potter said during a forum in the Russell Senate Office Building. He's not sure landing a gyrocopter decked out in U.S. Postal Service paraphernalia on the West Front, helped the cause, "but the underlying passion and views I think our shared by many Americans."  

The hour-long Rayburn forum, which included a panel of conservative commentators, such as tea party campaign strategist John Pudner of Take Back Our Republic, as well as more liberal voices, focused on finding common ground.  

Hughes and his lawyers have been negotiating a plea deal, aiming to avoid any jail time. He told reporters after the brief court proceedings that he is "not at all optimistic" about the talks. Exposing the relationship between Congress and big donors remains his top priority.  "I had a purpose for coming here, and I haven't even started in concluding what I came here for," Hughes said.  

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that sort of change "is more likely when you get [reformers] and grassroots conservative activists, who are starting to say, 'My god, this isn't what we think ought to happen here and this doesn't conform to conservative principles.'" Ornstein said those voices have "a lot more power than some of these outside efforts."  

The gyrocopter "got some attention," Ornstein said, "but most of the attention ... was about the breach of the security blanket around the Capitol."  

That's a topic fairly sensitive to the longtime congressional scholar, who led a more than decade-long campaign to try to protect the House and Senate and keep them viable if there's a terrorist attack. "That became a diversion in this case," Ornstein said, adding that fact might change.  

The panelists' opinions could explain why members of Congress who want to talk about capping outside money haven't directly addressed Hughes' letter. "Washington, on this issue, is really out of touch with where the country is. And whether it's the postman, or anyone else, there an awful lot of people out there, and what they're saying on the issue is resonating with similar majorities in both parties," Potter said.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once said Americans care as much about campaign finance reform as much as they did "static cling," said Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee.  

She referred to a 2001 interview with PBS NewsHour, in which McConnell talked about international efforts to squeeze the money out of foreign nation's politics."And I’ve often said — somewhat with a smile on my face — that this issue for average Americans ranks right up there with static cling as an issue of concern to them," McConnell said at the time.  

"I think the polls and examples like [Doug Hughes] show that's changed," McGehee said.  

If the Hughes case goes to trial, which may be clear after a Nov. 20 hearing, the focus will likely be on the security threat he did — or did not — pose. Hughes has suggested there could be campaign finance reform rallies around the nation.

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