By Scott Malone
WINDHAM N.H. (Reuters) - A dark horse in the New Hampshire race for the U.S. Senate who has been fighting big money in politics got a surprise boost last week from a like-minded group - to the tune of $2 million.
A new political action committee, Mayday PAC, is backing the candidate in the state's Republican primary, former state Senator Jim Rubens, with TV, radio and Internet ads as a test case in reforming American political campaign financing.
Rubens said the cash from the super PAC has breathed life into his campaign against Scott Brown, a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts who has held a big lead in the polls and had a far larger war chest.
"It has totally changed the conversation," Rubens said in an interview. "The argument for Brown has been limited to really one thing: He has got the money, therefore we have got to get behind him. ... That case is now moot."
Brown has raised about $2.6 million, while Rubens had raised a little more than $500,000 ahead of Mayday's involvement, according to the website OpenSecrets.org.
Mayday, the brainchild of Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, has raised $7.8 million in donations, some as small a $10, since its kickoff on May 1 and readily concedes the irony of raising money in an effort to reduce the role of money in politics.
The group, which expects to back eight candidates in the 2014 U.S. congressional midterms, wants to show potential donors that it can influence election outcomes.
If its candidates do well, Mayday hopes to back enough candidates in the 2016 election cycle to put in place a Congress ready to radically rewrite the rules of campaign finance. The goal is to make the powerful super PACs, which can influence agendas in favor of special interest groups with an unchecked supply of funds, less of a factor in U.S. politics.
"We're not out there trying to get one more Republican elected or one more Democrat elected," Lessig said in a phone interview. "We're out there trying to get a Congress that's committed to reform."
It's a message that may resonate in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first presidential nominating primary, where voters expect to have face-to-face contact with politicians running for offices from the statehouse to the White House.
"The voters here are not swayed by 30-second ads the way they are in other parts of the country. ... They take this stuff very seriously," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm's College in Manchester.
Mayday, which counts a host of wealthy and influential tech moguls, including Apple Inc co-founder Steve Wozniak and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, among its backers, said it will support candidates from both major parties that back campaign finance reform.
A 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court inspired the creation of super PACs, which can receive unlimited donations to spend on behalf of candidates or issues, so long as they do not directly coordinate their efforts with political campaigns.
Rubens said he would like to change the current U.S. election financing, establishing a public system in which taxpayers receive vouchers they can give to their preferred candidates. That would save money in the long term, he said, by reducing pressures for lawmakers to give breaks to special interest groups.
"The current system is not free for taxpayers," he said.
Rubens has been trailing in polls ahead of the Sept. 9 Republican primary. A NBC News/Marist poll last month found that 10 percent of 556 potential primary voters planned to vote for Rubens, with 61 percent backing Brown and 16 percent preferring state Senator Bob Smith.
A Brown spokeswoman declined to comment on Mayday's backing of Rubens.
Mayday, which says it can increase its war chest to $12 million with pledges for matching donations, has also backed a Democrat, Iowa state Senator Staci Appel, who is running for Congress. It also is limiting its support of Rubens to the primary, since the Democratic incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, also supports reform.
The groups' fundraising mechanism allows donors to choose whether their money will support only Democrats, only Republicans or candidates from either party.
The planned $2 million in Mayday spending makes Rubens a more appealing choice for Jim Fricchiome, 48, who works in the health insurance industry. He turned out to see the candidate at a town meeting in Windham, New Hampshire, on Tuesday.
"Electability is important to me," Fricchiome said, standing in the lobby of the Windham's white-clapboard town hall. We want to get that seat into the red column."
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)