Politics

Democratic PAC Transitions to Advocacy Role in 2017

End Citizens United taps into 2016’s frustration with establishment

End Citizens United helped elect New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan to the Senate last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

2016 wasn’t the year Democrats wanted it to be.

But for one PAC created this cycle to elect Democrats at the federal level, this year’s election results may actually validate support for their mission: getting big money out of politics. 

End Citizens United detects from this year’s anti-establishment election much of the same frustration with the status quo that will drive its advocacy work moving forward. 

But with Republicans in power and Trump signaling he may be less open to an overhaul, End Citizens United, which only backs Democrats, has its work cut out for it. The political action committee is launching a new advocacy program — End Citizens United Action Network — on Thursday to mobilize its supporters in 2017.

“Now, with Republican control of government threatening to flood the swamp, ECU members in every state are eager to wrestle the power in our democracy away from a small band of billionaires and return it to the American people,” ECU Executive Director Tiffany Muller said in a statement.

ECU was always planning to pivot to an advocacy role after the election. Like other Democratic players, though, the group just wasn’t expecting the results.

Despite the millions of dollars super PACs raised for her, Hillary Clinton earned ECU’s backing because of her support of an amendment that would overturn the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision, which deregulated corporate and union spending for or against specific candidates. 

ECU’s advocacy efforts come off a year of mixed electoral results. Founded in March 2015, ECU didn’t have much time to ramp up for the election season. But the PAC was a significant player in 2016 House and Senate elections, spending $15 million.

ECU’s independent expenditures were among the biggest from progressive spenders in the six most competitive Senate races. In Missouri, the group hammered Sen. Roy Blunt on air for his lobbyist ties, contributing to an anti-Washington narrative that became a salient message for both parties around the country. 

Election Day was disappointing for Democrats across the board. But the 115th Congress will include 15 of the House and Senate recruits that ECU backed, including Sens.-elect Maggie Hassan and Catherine Cortez Masto, who won in two of this year’s most competitive Senate races, in addition to the returning incumbents ECU endorsed. 

Small donors are ECU’s base. The PAC has raised $24 million from 270,000 donors, with an average gift of $14. But their grass-roots network is much larger — with 3 million supporters — and with the elections over, they’re looking to that community to drive their advocacy efforts.

ECU operates out of a single room above a La Colombe coffee shop with all the amenities, like grapefruit-infused water, that comes with renting shared space in Washington, D.C. But their staff is scrappy and fits around a small conference table.

Independent expenditure director Jody “One-Way” Murphy, so nicknamed because of the one-way communication he was allowed to have with the rest of the staff during the election, will now take on the role of political director. Advocacy director Sela Brown will head the newly created advocacy department. Muller, a veteran of Victory Fund and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, will remain as executive director.  

Two days before launching their action network, the staff gathered to nail down the specifics of its rollout. The email blast to supporters would be coordinated through digital agency Mothership Strategies, conveniently housed in the same workspace.

Initial engagement with members will survey them about how they’d like to be involved, whether that’s writing letters to the editor or phone banking. With a launch budget of $10,000, ECU will be promoting the action network with national ads on digital platforms like Facebook and Google.  

Advocacy efforts will pressure Congress and the administration to increase transparency in elections and will fight efforts to limit campaign finance disclosure. In addition to fighting its namesake Supreme Court decision, ECU would like to see overturned the 2014 decision McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down two-year aggregate limits on how much individuals can donate to candidates, parties and PACs.

The group is preparing research on Trump’s potential Cabinet nominees, with plenty of material ready to go out on Citizens United president David Bossie, whom Trump tapped for deputy campaign manager, should he be called up. 

And the group hasn’t given up on the Supreme Court: the Action Network will lobby for nominees that oppose Citizens United. 

“Our strength comes from the energy behind the people who understand we need to change the campaign finance system in order to get things done,” communications director Adam Bozzi said.

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