Despite ad, Tea Party is skeptical of Larson’s campaign finance reform bill

WASHINGTON–Supporters of a public financing system for U.S. House and Senate candidates have wrapped themselves in the Tea Party flag, with an ad touting support from this election season’s hottest new political force. But they shouldn’t count on a Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck endorsement anytime soon.

At issue is a proposal, sponsored by Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, to allow congressional candidates who raise money from small donors and forgo PAC donations to tap into a federal financing system to help fund their campaigns.

The bill, called the Fair Elections Now Act, advanced in the House Thursday, winning approval from a key committee. “So many campaigns, including in Connecticut, are awash in money,” Larson said. “We have to return this process to the people.”

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Rep. John Larson

But while many Tea Party activists may embrace Larson’s goal of getting big, special interest money out of politics, his solution isn’t likely to prompt a groundswell of conservative support.

“This is just another example of bureaucracy in action, with self-appointed elites determining how everyone should play today,” said Rob Gaudet, a member of the Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots. He said one of the bill’s provisions, which would impose a new fee on large government contractors to cover some of the costs of a public financing system, smacks of “class warfare and goes against everything the Tea Party stands for.”

Gaudet was responding to an ad campaign launched last weekend, part of an $8 million blitz in favor of the measure by a coalition of liberal and campaign finance reform groups. In addition to the predictable liberal voices, the ad features interviews with conservatives-most notably Tea Party attendees of the recent Glenn Beck rally in Washington-saying there’s too much money in politics and the Fair Elections bill is a great solution.

“Given the voter uprising we are seeing across the country, members of Congress ought to be pass this bill immediately,” David Donnelly, campaign manager for the Campaign for Fair Elections, said in a press release highlighting the new advertisement.

Why are backers of the bill so eager to tout Tea Party support for this bill that would dramatically reshape the campaign finance system?

“People tend to say this is a liberal issue, but the truth is that everyone believes Washington’s been bought off,” said Adam Smith, a spokesman for the Public Campaign Action Fund, part of the coalition funding the ad campaign. “We just wanted to show that these conservative activists, the ones everyone is talking about this election, they also see this as a problem. They’re not just angry at Democrats. They think their voices are not being heard and are being drowned out by these special interest donors and corporate backers.”

But Gaudet and others speculated that that the Tea Party activists interviewed for the ad didn’t get the full scoop on Larson’s bill, which would create a voluntary federal public financing system for congressional candidates. Modeled on state public campaign funding programs like the one in Connecticut, the bill would allow candidates who raise a certain amount of money from small donors–those who give $100 or less–to get $4 in federal matching funds for every $1 dollar they raise from individuals in their home state.

Larson said he hadn’t seen the ad and didn’t think a claim of Tea Party support would make any difference one way or another.

But he noted that one other goal of the bill–to open up the current system to lesser-known challengers who can’t attract the same kind of big-money support as incumbents like himself–could provide critical support for Tea Party candidates. “It does have the opportunity to open up democracy to greater participation,” Larson said.

To be sure, Tea Party candidates in Connecticut have been torn over whether to participate in the state public financing system.

“That has been a big question … and a bit of a dilemma,” said Joe Markley, a Tea Party activist and Republican who is running for state Senate from Southington. Markley said some have shunned the funding, even though it puts them at an electoral disadvantage.

Markley, for his part, dropped off his qualification paperwork today and hopes to get an $85,000 check for his campaign in the coming days. He said he figured he might as well play by the current rules even if he doesn’t like them.

As for Larson’s bill, he said, “I think a lot of people in the Tea Party would agree that there’s a problem with election financing and … certainly [share] the sense that big corporations and big unions are overwhelming the will of the people. But the solution is not to get government into it … If I had a chance to vote against it, I would.”