Why Kicking Money Out of Politics Was an Impossible Dream (This Year, Anyway)


Running on a platform of campaign finance reform is admirable. But turns out it's not electable.

John Denney found out the hard way. The Independence Party candidate looking to snag Michele Bachmann's old spot on Tuesday made a unique promise to the world: He wasn't taking any money from corporations, special interests, nothing. He was going as grassroots as grassroots can be.

See also: John Denney, Independence Party Candidate, Wants You To Sue Him If He Sells Out

The cold, hard idealists out there ate it up. Denney was a true, godforsaken political candidate who was sticking to his principles, refusing campaign checks and even signing a contract letting you sue him if he took any illegal cash. It's rare to find anywhere, let alone a congressional campaign.

The anti-corruption group loved it. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor who launched a Super PAC to fight Super PACs, called it brilliant.

It didn't work.

Instead of staying close with GOPer Tom Emmer and DFLer Joe Perske, Denney finished a distant, dismal third, pulling in a faint 5.26 percent of the vote.

"It was a total failure, right?" Denney tells us. He pins the problems on all sorts of things, but two stood out: turnouts and demographics. Denney's only 28, and his ideas tend to attract the younger generation. Unfortunately, he says, with the low turnout and fewer young people voting in this midterm, he didn't stand much of a chance.

But he still believes in his principles, even though they may failed him this first time. In particular, Denney's still pumped about that contract he made letting taxpayers sue him if he took corporate money.

"It has a lot of support, the idea of it," Denney says. "So I do think I'm gonna try to push it over the next few years"

He's not quite sure how, though. Maybe as an advocate, maybe as a candidate again. And not just as an IP'er -- if it was possible, Denney would jump right into the two-party system.

"Right now, if the GOP or DFL would allow me to run under their banner with this contract, I'm listening! In fact, I'd probably do it," Denney tells us. "I just don't think they're gonna allow it because of the party structure."

On the surface, the DFL would actually make a little bit of sense. After all, DFLers Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar pushed a constitutional amendment to limit corporate spending. Seems pretty principled, right?

But look past the political posturing, and Denney's probably right that they wouldn't let somebody with his principles into the club. Even Franken and Klobuchar accept millions every year from super PACs and interest groups. No matter what they may say, they need corporate cash to just get through an election.

So Denney's not optimistic.

"The reality of it is, it's a little bit more of a centrally planned, rigged game than I thought it was," he says. "...As much as the democrats talk campaign finance reform, they're benefiting."

Everybody is. And that's the problem.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.