Gyrocopter flight raises profile on campaign finance reform, but for how long?

A bomb squad technician walks past the gyrocopter that Doug Hughes of Ruskin landed on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, April 14, 2015. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
A bomb squad technician walks past the gyrocopter that Doug Hughes of Ruskin landed on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, April 14, 2015. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Apr. 17, 2015

Can one man with a message and a gyrocopter move a nation?

After Ruskin mail carrier Doug Hughes landed with his flying machine on the U.S. Capitol lawn Wednesday, there were immediate security questions, as well as general curiosity as to how he accomplished the feat.

But did he actually bring national attention to campaign finance reform, as he set out to do?

In the short term, the answer appears to be yes.

Mentions of "campaign finance" on local and national news outlets spiked in the 24 hours after Hughes — carrying 535 letters to Congress — flew his gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pa., safely into restricted airspace over Washington, D.C.

According to Critical Mention, a television recording service that monitors programming in all 210 U.S. markets, broadcasts used the words "campaign finance" 870 times on Wednesday and 2,320 times on Thursday through 5 p.m.

On the previous two days, it came up just 75 times.

Not all mentions are created equal, of course. While Hughes may have brought awareness to the topic, most newscasts mentioned his concerns in passing. In-depth discussion was largely missing in the aftermath of his brazen journey.

It also remains to be seen whether Hughes and his message will have staying power through the next news cycle. Most knowledgeable observers are skeptical.

"The positive spin that I could put on it with a straight face is that as the objective conditions of campaign finance get worse and worse we ought to expect more and more weird stunts because people see a problem and no way to effectively leverage a solution," said David Karpf, a professor focused on strategic political advocacy and communications for George Washington University.

"Random stunts that get you a news cycle,'' he said, "won't get us close to a constitutional convention, which is what is needed to get this issue changed."

Hughes is not the first person to use a gimmick to raise an issue's profile. And he's not the first to focus on money in politics.

In the late 1990s, an elderly New Hampshire woman known as "Granny D" garnered national coverage when she walked across the country in support of campaign finance reform. During the 2014 election cycle, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig started a Super PAC called Mayday PAC, with the goal of ending Super PACs by supporting candidates who vowed to reform fundraising rules. It has had marginal success.

In this age of social media and viral videos, Hughes' flight is sure to make it in front of a lot of eyeballs in the next couple of days. And he gave "campaign finance" a bump on Twitter as well.

A smattering of tweets voiced support for Hughes and his message. Many also lamented that cable news chose to narrow their wall-to-wall coverage to the potential security threat of small aircrafts penetrating restricted air space.

"Social media allows a story to explode, but it also allows another story to overshadow it almost immediately," said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of politics, mass media and public opinion at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

Nonetheless, activists remain optimistic that a sea change is on the horizon, and Hughes' actions furthered the cause. This is because American support for getting special interest money out of elections existed before Hughes' flight, said Craig Holman, lobbyist for Washington-based Public Citizen, a proponent of restricting big money in politics.

People "are getting angry about all the money coming in," Holman said, and Hughes was a symbol of that frustration.

"It is generating and promoting the type of grass roots movement that the entire country is behind," Holman said.

Progressive commentator and activist Cenk Uygur, whose views on campaign finance influenced Hughes, called the flight "awesome" and "courageous."

Uygur, host of the widely popular online news show The Young Turks, said he doubts action from Congress itself, but "if everybody takes some degree of action to say we're sick of it and we're going to deliver our message in our own way, I think it will have all the impact in the world."

Poll data throughout the years shows general support for many of the ideals behind campaign finance reform efforts. But it has not been the public's priority.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that 28 percent of Americans said campaign finance reform should be a top concern for Congress, "one of the lowest-ranked issues across party lines."

Even lawmakers who support a constitutional amendment to change campaign finance rules are skeptical of Hughes' actions. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, introduced a constitutional amendment in the Senate, and he called Hughes' flight a "bizarre stunt."

"While a gyrocopter pilot gone rogue will capture the news cycle," Udall told the Tampa Bay Times, "the mass movement in support of campaign finance reform will ultimately achieve meaningful and lasting change."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at or @scontorno.