Beating Big Money

Democrats are taking a lot of pleasure, as they well should, that the tsunami of big money from Wall Street, the Koch brothers and other big oil magnates, Sheldon Adelson, and other big business millionaires did not end up buying the election. (The

Democrats are taking a lot of pleasure, as they well should, that the tsunami of big money from Wall Street, the Koch brothers and other big oil magnates, Sheldon Adelson, and other big business millionaires did not end up buying the election. (The House, yes, but not everything.) But our delight at seeing Karl Rove's humiliation should not keep us from continuing to focus on the toughest question progressives always have to face: how to beat big money in politics. It sure would be a great thing if our campaign finance system was reformed, public financing was instituted, and Citizens United was overturned, but unfortunately it will probably be a way off before that gets done. In the meantime, our side is usually going to be outspent, and that will always be something we have to figure out how to overcome. This year we won in the Presidential race and most of the competitive Senate races through strong candidates and through winning the message war, but did not survive the big money onslaught in the House where candidates are lesser known and easier to overwhelm with money.

One fact gave me special joy: Elizabeth Warren outraised Scott Brown $39.2 million to $26.2 million. This is a truly remarkable achievement given that Warren didn't decide to run until September of last year, and that Wall Street invested invested very heavily in Brown: the financial industry gave him almost $3.3 million, by far the most of any industry. Insurance, real estate, big oil, the big pharmaceutical companies, corporate law firms and lobbyists all threw multiple hundreds of thousands into the pot as well. The fact that Warren, even while getting a late start, could outraise Brown with his close ties to big corporate money by a lot has some very big implications for the future prospects of progressives beating big money.

How did she do it? Brown outraised her well over 4-1, $2.7 million to about $600,000, in PAC contributions, no surprise there. There are still some labor and progressive PACs that can raise candidates some money, but they will always be swamped by the wealthy corporate PACs. But Warren did remarkably well in raising money from bigger dollar progressive folk, raising money from environmentalists, women's activists, LGBT activists, people in the arts, trial lawyers fighting corporate law firms, progressive high tech folks. She was able to inspire and motivate a wide range of progressive donors to dig deep and support her in a big way, and because of this she actually ended up outraising Brown by a decent amount among bigger individual donors, outraising him in that category with almost $21 million to his $17.5 million. As someone who has been raising money for progressive candidates for over 20 years, I can testify to the fact that Elizabeth was perhaps the easiest sell I have ever had- progressives were fired up by her fighting spirit. So the PAC and individual fundraising about balanced each other out. Where Warren swamped Brown, though, was in small donations: she ended up raising $17.2 million to Brown's $4.1 million- a difference the Wall Street fat cats couldn't make up for because they were too busy giving Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and the rest of the deregulatory crowd big dough too.

It wasn't just Warren outraising the Republicans in small donations either, in case you haven't checked the Obama campaign's utterly swamping Romney in the small dollar category ($214.3 million to $70.9 million). Romney outraised Obama over 4 to 1 from Wall Street, and of course got far more in IE money helping him, but it didn't matter because so many progressive small donors came through for the President. Now I hear people saying that the Presidential is different from everything else, and that Warren was a unique candidate, both of which are quite true. But in the competitive Senate races the Democrats won, there is a pattern: they were able to hold their own in fundraising to a significant extent because of the wide edge in small donor fundraising: Tammy Baldwin outraised Tommy Thompson $5.1M to $1.1M; Sherrod Brown outraised Josh Mandel $6.2M to $3.1M; even far lower profile Heidi Heitkamp, who had nowhere near the same level of attention or support from the big progressive groups that focus on online fundraising, outraised Rick Berg $1.1M to $280,000. In 7 of the 9 other competitive Senate races, Dems outraised their opponents in small dollar contributions, and in 18 of the most competitive 25 House races as well- and usually by very big margins.

Historically, progressive Democrats have had to rely on a fundraising base of environmentalists, women and pro-choice activists, LGBT activists, Hollywood, trial lawyers, and labor. There's certainly some good money there but nothing to compete with the Mack truckloads of money from Wall Streeet, the health insurers, big oil, Pharma, the Chamber, and the big corporate lawyers and lobbyists. This year, all those big money boys (yes, they still are mostly boys) certainly did their part to make this campaign season obscenely expensive. But individual progressive donors motivated by populist candidates on our side and the terrible values and policies on the other did a remarkable amount to stem the tide.

Here's the other thing worth noting: in the competitive races where progressive groups played, they won a remarkable percentage of the time. The League of Conservation Voters took out 11 of their 12 “Dirty Dozen” targets; J Street won on an astounding 71 out of 72 House and Senate races, a lot of them very competitive; PCCC won 73.3% of their races; Human Rights Campaign won every single top priority race and initiative fight they took on; the labor movement in general kicked ass in their top targeted races and states, and was absolutely central to winning Ohio for Obama.

Democrats won this Presidential election by taking on a populist stance and successfully engaging both their base and working class swing voters. In the competitive Senate and House races they won, they mostly did it with populist candidates who got the progressive community and small donors excited about helping them. The old Mark Penn/DLC/Third Way model of winning elections is in serious danger, because there’s too much right wing and corporate money flooding the airwaves for Republican candidates, and the Third Way style candidates have a very tough time stirring up the desperately needed support from grassroots donors and progressive groups.

The way to beat big corporate money? Elizabeth Warren’s path is the future of our party far more than the Third Way path of making peace with Wall Street. Her kind of message has always worked better. Now, Elizabeth and candidates like her have shown that they can raise better money than the Wall Street Democrats as well.

About Mike Lux

Mike Lux's picture
Author, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be

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