NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (USATODAY.com) - Dan Backer is on a campaign-finance crusade.
The activist lawyer wants the digital currency bitcoin accepted as campaign contributions. He wants donors to Tea Party-affiliated political action committees to remain anonymous. And he recently helped launch a non-profit group to make it easier for disenchanted donors to demand contribution refunds from politicians.
Many of his far-fetched proposals have been rejected by federal regulators. But the 36-year-old conservative Republican could be on the brink of making election history - and his reputation - with a case the Supreme Court's justices are deliberating.
The case, McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, seeks to eliminate the ceiling on what wealthy individuals can donate to federal candidates, parties and political action committees in a single, two-year election cycle.
Government watchdogs view McCutcheon, argued before the justices last October, as the biggest threat to campaign-finance regulations since the high court's 2010Citizens United ruling allowed the use of unlimited corporate and union money to influence candidate races. If Backer's side prevails - and many court watchers predict at least a partial victory - it could open the door to other legal challenges to contribution limits.
"The government shouldn't be in the business of policing speech," Backer said during an interview at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference - an annual gathering that is part pep rally, trade show and media madhouse that attracts some of the Republican Party's most ardent conservative activists.
It's a place where Backer gets a lot of business done. It was at this conference three years ago that Backer met Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Alabama electrical engineer who is the named plaintiff in the case. A few months after their initial meeting, Backer helped McCutcheon launch a super PAC, Conservative Action Fund.
About a year after their first meeting, Backer persuaded McCutcheon to confront the aggregate limits in court.
McCutcheon and Backer are not challenging the underlying base limits that prevent an individual from donating more than $2,600 directly to a federal candidate for a primary and general election, but they say the overall limit impinges on an individual's First Amendment rights of speech and association.
Federal law limits the aggregate amount an individual can give to political parties, candidates and political action committees to $123,200 over a two-year cycle. Under the rules, an individual cannot give $2,600 each to more than nine candidates in primary and general elections.
Backer called it "asinine" to prevent the same individual from then contributing to a 10th or 11th federal candidate. He argues that a favorable ruling could help political parties who have seen their influence wane in the face of unlimited spending by super PACs and other outside groups, and it could send more donations to upstart candidates to boost their standing in primaries.
"Competitive races are good for democracy," he said.
Backer's client roster is filled with outsiders.
It includes the Senate campaign of Rep. Steve Stockman, who was crushed by Texas Sen. John Cornyn in last week's Republican primary, and the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which backs another long-shot candidate - high school French teacher J.D. Winteregg, one of several Tea Party-aligned candidates seeking to oust House Speaker John Boehner in Ohio's GOP primary May 6.
Backer has grabbed his biggest headlines for his unorthodox challenges to election rules. He has pushed the Federal Election Commission to write rules allowing federal campaigns to accept bitcoin. The commission deadlocked 3-3 on his request but could revisit the issue.
He was less successful in his quest to have sitting members of Congress run their own super PACs. The often-divided commission agreed unanimously to reject Backer's request.
"He does a lot of things to get attention," said Indiana lawyer James Bopp, a leading figure among conservative election lawyers and the brainchild behind the groundbreaking Citizens United case. He declined further comment on Backer's tactics.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign-finance watchdog group Democracy 21, said Backer "seems to take the most extreme positions around and hope for the best."
For his part, Backer sums up his record this way: "When you pick the hard fights, you don't win as often."
Backer's biggest success was as the lead lawyer on a 2011 case that established so-called hybrid PACs. Under the new rules, one organization can spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose a candidate - operating as a super PAC would - and also contribute limited sums directly to candidates. These new political entities can fulfill both roles as long as they maintain separate bank accounts for each activity.
At last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, Backer and his staff set up a booth offering hybrid PAC "kits" for $695 to activists (The pitch: Provide $200 to open the two bank accounts and $495 for legal services, and an hour later, you have your own hybrid PAC.)
He said he sold only two or three of the packages at the event and lost money. At this year's gathering, he abandoned the booth idea and devoted himself to back-to-back meetings with clients and potential clients.
"A lot of Dan's ideas aren't successful commercially, but I admire the effort," McCutcheon said Monday in a telephone interview.
Though other lawyers did much of the legal legwork to prepare and argue the case before the Supreme Court, McCutcheon credits Backer with organizing the whole effort and persuading him to bring the case in the first place.
"I was skeptical of the ability to really challenge something like this," he said of the law limiting aggregate contributions. "To Dan's credit, he believed it could happen. I listen to Dan a lot more now."
Backer, who runs his own practice in Alexandria, Va., with two associates, said his family's history shapes his legal crusades.
His parents and grandparents emigrated to the USA in 1978 from Russia when he was a toddler. When he was growing up in Tenafly, N.J., his parents instilled in him a "keen sense of what life was like without your First Amendment right to speak," he said.
At his high school, only students with a free class period at the end of the day could write for the student paper, he said. He started an alternative weekly in protest.
Backer, who holds a law degree from George Mason University, acknowledges that a win in McCutcheon probably would reap him some new attention. A decision is likely before the court adjourns in June.
"I like seeing my name in print and getting quoted," Backer said, but his bigger goal is to "help move the ball and create a society that's free to speak."