POLITICS
05/09/2017 03:26 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017

Democrats Are So Riled Up, They’re Contributing To Races With Unknown Candidates

Progressive groups have already raised over $2 million for future campaigns.

WASHINGTON ― Democratic activist groups have a new plan for their party to take back control of Congress: Raise money for yet-to-be determined Democratic nominees.

At least three Democratic-allied groups ― including ActBlue, the biggest online fundraiser for Democratic candidates ― are raking in money from donors who don’t care who they’re supporting, as long as it’s a Democrat in a certain district.

Immediately after House Republicans passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, Daily Kos, ActBlue and Swing Left each put out calls to fund challengers to Republicans who voted for the legislation. The three groups combined to raise more than $2 million in less than 24 hours for dozens of Democratic nominees whose identities will be determined at a later date.

That means many of those future candidates will have tens of thousands of dollars in their campaign accounts upon winning the party nomination.

Ji-Sub Jeong/HuffPost

“I have never seen it used in the way it was used yesterday,” ActBlue’s executive director, Erin Hill, told HuffPost of raising money to fund future Democratic nominees after the House vote.

Swing Left hopes to eventually raise $100,000 each for Democratic candidates in the 65 House districts it’s targeting. Daily Kos has already raised enough money since the health care vote to send an average of $59,000 to 24 Democratic candidates. Another site, It Starts Today, is raising money for Democratic challengers in all 468 congressional races (435 House and 23 Senate races) in 2018. Donors can give as little as one cent per district per month. But the money adds up: It Starts Today has already raised “north of $400,000,” Jonathan Zucker, the ActBlue alum who co-founded the site, told HuffPost.

“It’s really exciting to see all of this energy,” Zucker said. “It’s great that Swing Left launched their nominee funds, and that Daily Kos is backing them up. And ActBlue has always had this [way of raising money] in their back pocket. It’s great to see everyone using it so effectively.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party organ charged with electing Democrats to the House, is excited, too ― and hopes the funds will help it recruit candidates.

“The energy that we’re seeing in districts across the country is absolutely a motivating factor for potential candidates,” said Tyler Law, a DCCC spokesman. “This energy is showing up in multiple forms. People showing up to protests, people holding empty-chair town halls when their member won’t show up, and small dollar grassroots donations are all motivating factors for potential candidates. If you’re standing up and running for Congress and you have that many people ready to stand behind you, that’s got to be exciting.”

The candidate funds work like an escrow fund. Donors pool money to support a Democratic Party candidate in a particular race ― say the Texas Senate race or New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District. That money is then held in the fund until a candidate wins his or her respective primary election. To the victor go the spoils.

ActBlue has offered donors these sorts of candidate funds since 2008, but hadn’t used them as much before this year. The original idea was to allow activists and donors to put their money on the table for a particular race, which, in America’s money-driven political system, represents a real display of voter interest in an election. More importantly, the money can entice qualified candidates to jump in, knowing they won’t instantaneously be overwhelmed by a better-funded incumbent or have to spend all of their time on the trail fundraising.

Wouldn’t it be nice if ... [your] ability to fundraise wasn’t a prerequisite to run for elected office? Jonathan Zucker, co-founder of It Starts Today

Zucker launched It Starts Today with just this intention. In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, he decided that disappointed Democrats needed to begin organizing immediately to take back Congress.

“What if we just started right now raising money for the people who are going to take back Congress in 2018?” Zucker asked. “What if we started right now raising this money to see if we can flip Congress?”

No one had ever tried to raise a mass amount of money for undeclared candidates on this kind of scale before.

“It can be a hard thing to organize around because it’s such an esoteric idea,” Hill said about the difficulties of fundraising for nominees whose identities are still unknown.

There’s also the problem that voters sometimes choose strange candidates. In Texas’ deep-red 22nd Congressional District, for example, Democratic primary voters twice selected Kesha Rogers, a supporter of conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, in 2010 and 2012 as their nominee.

Rogers had essentially no chance of beating Pete Olson, the Republican incumbent, in the general election. She also thought climate change was a hoax and called for impeaching then-President Barack Obama. Among her other policy positions: pushing for the “development of a successful industrialization of the moon.” 

In the aftermath of the Obamacare repeal vote, Daily Kos and Swing Left demonstrated one way to avoid sending money to a bad candidate. Both groups limited themselves to raising money for races against the most vulnerable Republican incumbents. For Daily Kos, this was 24 races; for Swing Left, it was 35. These races have the highest probability of attracting credible candidates.

ActBlue also allows groups that create fundraising pages for candidate funds to have stipulations the candidate must meet to obtain the money. In 2015, the Federal Election Commission allowed ActBlue to raise money for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee with the requirement that she be a woman.

Zucker’s effort, however, will distribute money to whomever wins each Democratic primary. He hopes a first-time candidate will get a boost even if It Starts Today only provides a small amount of money. It’s not just about winning in 2018, but getting new Democratic candidates into the political arena to get some experience now, he said. And one of the major obstacles for a lot of potential candidates is building a fundraising network and getting the money to open an office and pay staff.

“It is so much easier to get someone to run when they know there’s money waiting for them,” Zucker said. “It’s so much easier to get good candidates when there’s money waiting for them. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was a little easier and [your] ability to fundraise wasn’t a prerequisite to run for elected office and it didn’t matter who you knew and how much money you and they had?”

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