Item: Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican, recently beat a Democratic challenger in a special election for Georgia’s 32nd State Senate District. It was a comfortable victory, though not quite as comfortable as it ought to have been, according to Daily Kos’s David Nir. The Democratic share of the vote, he says, grew significantly between the primary and the special election. Nir also writes: “It’s also worth noting that Triebsch took 43 percent despite raising just $5,000; Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, brought in a hefty $300,000.”
The GOP candidate for a Georgia state senate seat in a very Republican district—by almost any standard a shoo-in—raised six figures to run against a long-shot Democrat with essentially no funding at all.
Item: Turning Point USA, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by a 20-something conservative activist, has been funneling money, largely in secret, to candidates in student government races at at least a dozen colleges across the country. Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 with a donation from conservative mega-donor Foster Friess, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for its chosen conservative student government candidates, out of a budget of over $5 million.
The American right is awash in money. A huge amount of right-wing donor money—much more than many reputable liberal activist and advocacy groups ever see—goes to grifters solely out to enrich themselves, and the movement still always has more than enough left over to fund campaigns at every level of government. The right has more money to spend on electing conservatives than it can efficiently spend. You don’t raise and spend thousands of dollars on college student government campaigns unless you don’t have a more urgent use for that money.
In a complete free-for-all with no real limits on political spending, this is basically the situation you’d expect to arise. There are more millionaire conservatives than millionaire leftists, and the billionaire class in particular is understandably grateful to the conservative movement for allowing it to come into existence in the first place.
The most effective way to address this democracy-distorting problem is probably not “campaign finance reform,” but rather the downward redistribution of the wealth of the conservative donor class. One thing necessary for that to happen, barring a revolution, is for a lot more liberal Democrats and left-wingers to win elections.
Of course, to win elections in the United States, you seem to need lots of money. Thankfully, there really are plenty of rich Democrats, rich liberals, and rich people with no coherent politics at all but who donate money to politicians due to peer pressure or a desire to purchase influence. There are enough of these people to keep Democrats extremely well-funded in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, in fact, even as the party has died down-ballot. The money—less than the right has, admittedly, but probably enough considering that the right needs to massively overspend to compensate for the fact that almost no one actually likes their policy agenda—would seem to be there, but it is inefficiently distributed.
There was this special election last night in Georgia that you may have read something about. It was “the most expensive House election ever.” The Democrat made headlines for the staggering amount of money he managed to raise, thanks to national interest from a fired-up liberal base. This fact was actually used as a (seemingly effective) line of attack against his candidacy—he was funded by outsiders.
Meanwhile, the Republican benefited from $18 million in spending from outside groups. Most of that money came from anonymous donors. The Republican received no blowback for this; the Democrat lost by a bit more than Hillary Clinton managed to lose the district by last November.*
This has become a clear pattern in American politics since the campaign finance order was upended: Democrats find themselves competing against a movement capable of funding student government races essentially just to piss off campus liberals, and Republicans pay almost no political price for relying on unlimited pools of outsider money from secret donors.
Here’s a fun question to ask the internet if you want to start an endless argument: What should we want Hillary Clinton to do with herself now, exactly? Regardless of whether you voted for her enthusiastically, reluctantly, or not at all, we must all acknowledge that she will continue to exist in this world for the foreseeable future, and, hence, will have do do something.
One thing rich people love to do is give the Clintons money. Rich people enjoy giving the Clintons money almost as much as they enjoy eating expensive versions of traditional street foods, and causing measles outbreaks. The liberal donor class and the not-that-liberal-but-likes-to-donate class love writing checks to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and increasingly also Chelsea too. The Clinton Foundation was the ultimate proof of that fact.
Recognizing that rich people really, really want to give her money—that more rich people probably want to give her money than would want to give it to boring party committees or non-Clinton candidates—one thing Hillary Clinton could do is take their money and give it to groups that need lots of money to do useful political work. If the money from this pool of Clinton-loving rich people doesn’t go to Hillary Clinton, after all, it’s an open question how much of it would instead go to SwingLeft or even the DLCC, instead of, say, Harvard or the Metropolitan Opera.
The good news is, this seems to be what Hillary Clinton has decided to do. Last month, she launched “Onward Together,” her new political nonprofit that will reportedly act not as a launching pad for a future Clinton campaign but as a group dedicated to aiding existing activist groups. The Politico reported just prior to the group’s launch: “The new organization is not expected to have a large staff, but will instead focus on sending money to other organizations at a time that Democratic donors are largely unsure about how they should be spending their cash.”
If accurate, this is exactly what we (pretty broadly defined) should want from Clinton in the Trump era.
The Clintons are a safe “brand” for wealthy donors who don’t want to get their hands dirty doing liberal politics. Donors who do want to do liberal politics are frequently attracted to big shiny races—the presidency, Virginia governor—and neglect state legislatures, House races in far-flung districts, and groups doing on-the-ground organizing throughout the country. A Clinton organization that can act as a clearinghouse for big donor money, and that distributes that money to organizations doing good work, is an eminently sensible idea. With the exception of a handful of mega-donors who determine the course of the movement, conservatives largely have experienced political operatives steer their donors’ money wherever it’s most needed (while taking a hefty cut for themselves and their friends, obviously). It has been, as we can all see, a successful model.
Liberals have long needed a way to funnel donor money to non-sexy but urgently necessary political causes (I have long thought that if groups like FairVote had just one Pete Peterson backing them, their wonkish but important causes would actually get attention from the mainstream press and elected Democrats). Onward Together won’t solve this problem, but it could ameliorate it. In the medium term, liberals will need to get over whatever lingering squeamishness about “dark money” remains, and ought to focus their energies on developing a strategy of tricking or cajoling the wealthy into subsidizing their own soaking.
The nice thing is, letting rich donors give their money to the Clintons, to give away as they see fit, doesn’t have to come with any downside for anyone. It does not preclude other fundraising strategies: There is room for the individual, small donor-funded grassroots campaign as well as the giant hose of dark money aimed at every conceivably winnable race. The Democrats will clearly need both.
Of course, maybe Onward Together will just be another vehicle for the Democratic power structure to stifle the electoral ambitions of the insurgent left, or maybe it’ll devolve into an ineptly run patronage machine for Clinton World lackeys and grifters, or maybe the organization will wither from lack of attention from its founder if she moves on to some other project. But if any of that happens, the money wasted there would likely have just been wasted in a similar manner by the DNC, or ended up in Harvard’s endowment, or spent on ineffective ads for policy-allergic technocrats running in Romney districts.
I say we let Hillary Clinton try to use her almost magical rich-people money-taking ability for good, and see if it manages to help.
*Correction: This sentence originally mistakenly said that the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 6th district lost the special election by a margin comparable to past Democrats. He improved on past Democratic candidates in the district.