From gun control legislation to immigration reform and health care policy, presidential candidates have no shortage of issues to talk with Iowa voters about as they traverse the state ahead of February’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
End Citizens United, a nationwide organization dedicated to ridding politics of corporate financing, has a different, top-line issue on its mind: campaign finance reform.
Not only does the group want candidates to emphasize their agenda in Iowa and the Democratic primary, they want it carried out in the White House.
“We’ve called on the entire presidential field to make comprehensive anti-corruption reform legislation the very first bill they do in a new administration,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United. “Our goal is to try to communicate that leadership to our members, including right here in Iowa, and to connect them with the campaigns.”
Muller spoke with Starting Line last week at the Iowa State Fair as a talent show carried on nearby.
End Citizens United was well-represented at the State Fair over the last several days with its booth of volunteers and informational material.
The group modeled its name after the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. F.E.C., which allowed corporations to pour an unlimited amount of money into American elections.
With more than four million members nationwide, End Citizens United is especially pleased with its so-called “Reform First” presidential candidates, who have pledged to “make comprehensive anti-corruption reform legislation the very first bill they do in a new administration,” Muller said.
Those candidates include: Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.
“I think that Sen. Warren does a fantastic job, almost every time she does any speech, talking about the overarching narrative of how the system right now is rigged in favor of special interests and how we need to give power back to the people,” Muller said.
“They’re talking about it because they know how much it resonates with voters and they’re seeing the connection with everything else we’re talking about.”
In Iowa, End Citizens United has endorsed Theresa Greenfield, running to unseat Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. And in the House, Muller said, they will be involved in helping Rep. Cindy Axne win a second term in a highly competitive district.
“We helped flip the House in 2018,” Muller said, of the chamber previously controlled by Republicans. “It was our No. 1 priority, and we flipped it with a reform class that is bigger than any since Watergate. And so our first and foremost priority is that we have to keep those reformers in Congress, because they are the tip of the spear in terms of getting these policies passed and actually, really leading on structural reform.”
Currently, it appears Axne will face former congressman David Young in a rematch of the 2018 contest.
Of Ernst, seeking re-election to the Senate for the first time, Muller said she was on End Citizens United’s “Big Money 20” list.
“It’s our target list of Republicans who we think are the worst of the worst in Washington,” she said. “Look, Joni Ernst ran on going to Washington and changing Washington. She even said, I’m going to go up there and I’m going to make the lobbyists and the special interests ‘squeal.’ It was a great ad and a great message, and it really resonated because that’s what people want. But that’s not what she’s done.”
With every new venture comes unintended consequences, as the Democratic National Committee and its presidential candidates have discovered as they navigate new rules governing who can participate in primary debates.
To qualify for the third round of debates in September, Democrats must meet a polling threshold and secure at least 130,000 unique donations.
Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, has emphasized the small-dollar donor model as a way to force candidates to build up a nationwide network of supporters rather than relying largely on Political Action Committees and expensive fundraisers.
“I appreciate the balance that the DNC was trying to find,” Muller said, “which is that they are showing that it is important to build a movement behind a candidate that it not just being funded by big donors, and that there are people — regular everyday Americans — out there that are willing to invest their $1, $5 or $10 in these candidates.
“We understand that the person who gives $5 is also often the person who will go talk to their neighbors and family about getting out and voting,” she continued. “They’re the ones who will text voters. They’re the ones who will do some phone banks. They’re the ones that will go out and knock some doors. So we, as a party, need that grassroots momentum.”
So far, nine candidates have secured their spot on the debate stage in Houston: former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Mayor Buttigieg; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Sen. Klobuchar; O’Rourke; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and Sen. Warren.
Four candidates, Sen. Gillibrand; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Julian Castro, former secretary of housing and urban development; and Tom Steyer, are considered on the bubble.
Despite the party’s attempt to steer candidates away from super PACs and wealthy donors, accusations of an unfair playing field still are being leveled.
This week, Gov. Bullock has accused Steyer, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, of spending $10 million to attract 130,000 donors.
“I think the DNC rules were well intentioned,” said Bullock, Tuesday on MSNBC, “but what it really has done is allowed a billionaire to buy a spot on the debate stage. Tom Steyer just spent $10 million to get 130,000 donors — we’re getting to the point where as we’re spending money online as opposed to actually talking to voters.”
Steyer, and others, reportedly have spent millions on Facebook and internet ads to attract donations as small as $1.
“I think that anytime we try something new, there are always some drawbacks,” Muller said, “and I think we’re seeing that as well.”
Despite the “drawbacks,” Muller was encouraged by the shift Democrats have made toward small-dollar donors, in part through the party’s fundraising engine, ActBlue.
“I don’t think a year ago we would have expected that all  folks who are running for president would not be taking any corporate PAC money,” she said. “Almost all of them are not taking lobbyist money. All of them have prioritized this issue in one way or another. Almost the entire field has sworn off single-candidate super PACs, and that’s huge.”
By Elizabeth Meyer