WASHINGTON -- Silicon Valley executives who gave big money to a super PAC are facing blowback from one of its targets. The mission of the Mayday PAC, a crowdfunded super PAC created by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, is to make it politically toxic to oppose campaign finance reform, thus reducing the influence of money in politics. To raise the political cost of inaction on the issue, Mayday has targeted a handful of members of Congress, hoping either to knock them off or to give them the scare of a political lifetime.
Yet some of the major donors behind the PAC are themselves getting quite the scare. One of the congressmen Mayday has set its sites on is Michigan Republican Fred Upton, chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee that has jurisdiction over the tech companies in Silicon Valley.
According to people familiar with the situation, committee staff director and former super lobbyist Gary Andres has spooked Mayday's donors, sending a signal that the chairman feels like the effort against him is uncalled for. The CEOs of some of the companies are concerned they will get rougher treatment when and if Upton survives.
Upton himself has reached out to the donors, he told a local editorial board during a livestreamed interview on Friday. "I do know some of the folks that funded the PAC and, as I've talked to them, they are, or they were under the illusion that this was a group that was trying to focus on dysfunction and taking it out, getting people that can work together. And the people that I've talked to, some of them have put six figures into this PAC. They are really ashamed," Upton said in the interview. "They are distraught. They said they were taken for a ride. It's too late. They bought the stuff and it came out of the blue."
They may indeed be distraught. Upton has significant power as the chairman of the committee that regulates Silicon Valley, and the tech CEOs didn't anticipate having him on their bad side when they chipped in to the PAC. Yet any major effort to challenge the status quo was bound to run up against one power center or another.
In a call to a tech industry lobbyist that was relayed to the CEOs, Andres said that Mayday was picking the wrong target in Upton. Upton played a role in passing Shays-Meehan, the House version of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that the Supreme Court later gutted. Andres also argued that Upton has been one of the few Republicans in favor of immigration reform, which the Silicon Valley crowd has spent millions pushing.
Andres has been in and out of government since the early 1980s; he was a top aide to President George H.W. Bush and worked for President George W. Bush in between stints of lobbying. Upton pulled him back into public service when he became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2011.
"Who do you think orchestrated Shayes-Meehan, the bipartisan bill? It was Fred Upton," Upton told the Kalamazoo Gazette editorial board. "I'm not a lawyer. I'm sorry that the Supreme Court struck quite a bit of it."
An adviser to the Mayday PAC countered that Upton, whatever his past support, has not signed on to any of the campaign finance reform bills, either Democratic or Republican ones, now in Congress. Upton also voted against the DISCLOSE Act, which would have rolled back some of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision he says he disagreed with. (The Mayday adviser added that while the super PAC's spending against Upton has been reported as $1.5 million, it is in fact closer to $2 million.)
Upton told the editorial board he'd soon be willing to give the names of the CEOs who were ashamed of their contributions. "I don't wanna give you names yet. I'll be glad to," he said.
In his interview, Upton noted his support of immigration as well, adding that the super PAC's aim is inconsistent. "This is a PAC that's allegedly taking big money out of politics, yet they're spending a million and a half dollars against me. That's a little bit contrary to start with," he said.
The irony doesn't stop there. Upton was asked whether the sizable amount of corporate PAC contributions he takes makes him unable to independently oversee those corporations. He cited the Mayday PAC's spending, which is aimed at reducing the overall influence of money in politics, as an example of why he needs to raise so much money.
"I have to be prepared. I've always said, in a campaign, you've gotta be like a Boy Scout," he said. "We've gotta be prepared. We didn't know that this PAC was gonna come back with a million and a half dollars against me, literally in like a two week span, but we had to be ready for it, and you know what? We are."
What kind of campaign finance reform would Upton support?
"We need maybe a code of ethics," he said, in which organizations would pledge not to run negative ads.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said that Andres spoke directly to CEOs who had given to MayDay PAC. Andres says that is not the case. "I have not called any CEO, any donor, or anyone else affiliated with the MayDay PAC. It just didn't happen. And frankly, I don't use intimidation or threats -- it's not on my roster of emotions -- even when my teenagers break their curfew."