The Campaign-Finance Activist Who Thinks We Need More Money in Politics, Not Less

By
Image
“We do stuff that is probably tasteless to some people, but we think it’s hilarious.”Photo: John Boal/John Boal Photography

Billy, a large frat brother in a green shirt and white backward hat, cups his hands over his mouth and calls out: “Up next, we have a fund-raiser where we’re gonna throw water balloons at Dan Backer.” It’s Labor Day at American University in Washington, D.C., and Backer is standing with his wife and two small boys on the edge of a group of about 25 fraternity and sorority members wearing bathing suits and jorts. “He won McCutcheon v. FEC,” Billy says. “And — long story short — he is the reason campaign-finance law is what it is right now.” The students respond with haphazard applause and a few boos. Backer, in a blue wicking shirt and trunks, puts on his goggles and takes a seat in a lawn chair across from the crowd. “Any of you guys like Hillary Clinton?” he shouts, but the students, who are gathering balloons to throw at him, don’t seem to notice his trolling. “Oh, come on,” he says. “Nobody likes Hillary Clinton?!”

Perhaps nobody likes her less than Backer does. To him, “Hillary, the brand” — her status as a pantsuit-wearing cultural icon — “is bullshit.” Whatever she’s done as senator and secretary of State, it does not impress him: “This is someone,” he says, “who has not had a substantial accomplishment other than marrying poorly.”

Ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on elections, Backer has been leading the charge to get more money into politics. In 2011, he won a federal case allowing the creation of hybrid PACs, a new class of groups that are allowed to raise unlimited sums while also giving limited amounts to chosen candidates, as long as they keep separate accounts. Three years later, he won that Supreme Court case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, that removed aggregate limits on the amounts individual donors can give in an election cycle. He’s listed as a treasurer for about 40 PACs, the best known of which is the Stop Hillary PAC, which has raised more than $1 million. Depending on your views, he is either ruining democracy or vigorously defending free speech.

Or, to the kids at Zeta Psi, a powerful frat brother they can make a few bucks throwing water balloons at. Backer, who was a Zeta Psi at UMass Amherst, has stayed involved with the group’s alumni organization and is happy to be the target of some water balloons tossed by college liberals to raise funds for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

What about Trump?! Long live Trump!” he says, taunting the students. One kid steps forward and tosses a balloon at him. It lands wide. “Oh, look, a liberal!” he shouts. The kids surge forward and begin chucking, all at once. Backer dodges two balloons, catches one, and flinches as another explodes on his shoulder. Two kids step forward with a giant plastic bucket to dump on him, but he’s able to slip out of his chair just in time to evade the waterfall. The students groan. Soon they’ve run out of water balloons, except for two Backer’s mother-in-law bought for his kids to toss.

Throw them at Daddy hard!” he instructs. They do, but the balloons bounce off his chest and burst on the ground.

Everyone takes a break while the organizers gather more balloons. “I can’t believe no one wanted to raise their hand to say they liked Hillary!” he says, removing his goggles. “I’m kinda bummed! I had a whole routine ready, like, ‘I’m in charge of Stop Hillary PAC — when you hear of all the shit she’s doing, we broke that story!’ 

Clearly, Backer has no problem drawing attention to his efforts. “I’m into the political theater of it all,” he told me this summer when I went to visit his office. “We do stuff that is probably tasteless to some people, but we think it’s hilarious.” When I asked him what he meant, he popped open his laptop and offered a sneak peek at an unaired Stop Hillary PAC ad. “Remember when Hillary Clinton’s foundation took all that money from the sultan of Brunei?” a narrator asked, showing an image of Clinton with the sultan set to music, “and then stood up to him for stoning gay men? No?” The music stopped and the video cut to a clip that appeared to show a man being stoned to death. “Neither do we.” Stop Hillary PAC runs email campaigns aimed at small donors and has delivered more than 400,000 petition signatures to Congressman Trey Gowdy’s office in support of his Benghazi investigations. (Gowdy, for his part, made it clear he did not want Republicans fund-raising off the issue.)

On the quad, the college kids have returned with more balloons. Backer takes his seat and resumes his taunts. “Did someone say Trump?” he says to no one in particular. “We’ve got to make America great again!” A balloon crashes against his knees, spattering him. He dodges one, catches two more, chucks them back into the crowd. Within minutes, the ammo is again spent. The kids begin to disperse.

Backer, in his wet bathing suit, walks over to a bench near the campus spiritual-life center, pulls up a dinosaur video to distract one of his sons, and starts explaining how he found his calling. His Russian Jewish parents fled Novosibirsk in 1978, when he was a year old, and raised him in New Jersey. Always something of a rebel, he decided to launch an alternative newspaper at his high school and ran afoul of administrators when he published the perspective of a senior kid who’d gotten in trouble for, as Backer remembers it, “slap[ping] some freshman girl on the ass.” After he graduated from law school, a mentor asked him for help with the paperwork of his PAC. Backer found himself a niche advising PACs and eventually began to challenge the boundaries of what they were legally allowed to do. He’s also helped organize the Stop Pelosi PAC and Stop R.E.I.D. PAC, and helps run the Conservative Action Fund, a tea-party group funded by Shaun McCutcheon. He is rarely the public face of these groups; Backer has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes facial tics and other TV-unfriendly gestures, like the tendency to gesture at you with both middle fingers as he’s speaking.

Individuals and organizations spending money to talk to me about what they think I should do is their right. And it’s my right to listen or not,” he says. “Money in politics is great. Restraints on political communication are fundamentally about protecting the status quo, and also about preventing people from having every bit of information they want to consume.” How, then, do you stop politicians from being corrupted by the very rich? “I totally believe in base limits,” he says. “I think they should be higher, but … it is a fundamentally obvious thing to me that if I give you, a candidate, a million dollars, I may not have bought you, but it sure as hell looks that way.”

Despite all that, Backer is not universally well regarded on the right. His groups raise a lot of money that goes back into his firm, a practice that’s led some people to call them “scam PACs.” The term pisses Backer off. “[John] Boehner complains very loudly that one of my clients raised a lot of money to primary him. Well, you know what? If you don’t want to be primaried, pay attention to the people that are complaining about you. Don’t call them assholes. [Eric] Cantor can be spending $160,000 on steak dinners for lobbyists, but we’re a scam? What it comes down to is: People who don’t want you to speak are going to say anything they can to stop you from speaking.”

Backer points to the 400,000 signatures on the Benghazi petition as evidence of the support behind the Stop Hillary PAC, and he says it will mobilize supporters in increasingly public campaigns this fall. “We have a particularly large project that we’re going to be rolling out. The RNC could never, ever do it,” he says. “Our volunteers will fight because they see Hillary as an existential threat.” It’s called Operation Black Box. “This,” he promises, sounding very sure of himself, “is the thing that’s going to do Hillary in.”

*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.