Common Cause is a 501(c)(4) progressive advocacy group focusing on campaign finance law, so-called “fair redistricting,” and general liberal policy. Common Cause describes itself as “a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government capable of solving today’s challenges to the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in a government that belongs to them.” In practice, the group opposes Republican politicians, Republican-nominated judges, Republican-backed efforts to ensure the integrity of voter rolls, and generally Republican redistricting efforts.
Common Cause was founded in 1970 by the late John Gardner. Gardner served as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later split into the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education) in the Johnson administration. Gardner was instrumental in the implementation of Johnson’s “Great Society” programs and brought Common Cause out of the Urban Coalition Action Council (UCAC), which he previously led. Gardner had previously served as president of the Carnegie Corporation from 1955-1965.
Gardner, like other mid-1960s left-liberal activists like Ralph Nader, sought to create what he called a “true citizens’ lobby” that would work to advance the well-being of the nation over special interests. Common Cause rose to prominence lobbying members of Congress to cut off funding for the Vietnam War. In 1971, the group filed lawsuits against both major political parties, claiming they violated campaign fundraising and spending laws, a maneuver that earned Gardner a place on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Common Cause gained additional momentum from the Watergate scandal.
Common Cause has maintained the legacy of association with Democratic politicians it inherited from former Secretary Gardner. From 2003 to 2007, Common Cause was led by Chellie Pingree, who had recently been defeated for election to the United States Senate from Maine as a Democrat. Prior to her Senate campaign, Pingree was a Democratic member of the Maine state Senate, serving four years as Majority Leader. Pingree left Common Cause to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, winning election in 2008.
While the Common Cause continues to bill itself as a nonpartisan entity, its leadership and its politics are very much weighted toward the Democratic Party and left-of-center politics. The current president is Karen Hobert Flynn, who had served as the group’s executive director in Connecticut. She first joined the group in 1985 as a national organizer and program director. A proponent of campaign finance reform, Hobert Flynn has editorialized against the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC in the Huffington Post and in other publications.
Her immediate predecessor is Miles Rapoport, a former Connecticut lawmaker and secretary of the state who previously served as president of Demos, a left-leaning New York-based left-wing advocacy group. Former U.S. Representative Bob Edgar (D-Pennsylvania), now deceased, is another former Common Cause president who had also headed up the left-leaning National Council of Churches. Common Cause’s National Governing Board chairman is Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who favors a single-payer government-controlled healthcare system.
The group does have a long history of targeting conservative as opposed to liberal figures. Common Cause has used its ethics platform to censure Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1985, House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 and House Majority Leader Tom Delay in 2006.
Most recently, Common Cause has trained its sights on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a section on its web site titled: “Stop Jeff Sessions,” Common Cause released a series of talking points for supporters to read to U.S. Senators to encourage opposition to Sessions’ confirmation
In 2020, Common Cause co-signed a letter addressed to president Donald Trump which advocated for hiring Federal Election Commission (FEC) Commissioners to reach quorum and to enforce election laws.
Common Cause also draws in substantial financial support from progressive sources.
George Soros has given the group $2,025,000 since 2000 through his Open Society Foundations (formerly Open Society Institute) and $600,000 since 2009 through his Foundation to Promote Open Society. Arca Foundation has given the group $1,395,000 since 2000. Other donors include the Carnegie Corporation of New York ($1,810,000 since 2001), Joyce Foundation ($1,480,000 since 2003), San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation ($1,375,000 since 2005), Ford Foundation ($685,000 since 2000), and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ($309,093 since 2002). The group has also received anonymous funding from major donor-advised fund providers—entities criticized by some progressive campaign finance reformers as “dark money”— like the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund ($579,500 since 2003) and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program ($506,500 since 2006).
Common Cause has received funding from labor unions. Reports filed with the Department of Labor show that the Communications Workers of America spent over $55,000 on Common Cause, including $40,396 for “political activities.” In unions’ 2016 fiscal years, the California Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, and the SEIU Illinois State Council all reported expenditure to Common Cause or a Common Cause affiliate.