‘The threat is real’: Dems press big donors to target state races

·11 min read
Jim Rassol/AP Photo

Increasingly worried that big donors are failing to recognize the scale of the threat to democratic norms, Democratic strategists and party officials are rallying behind an effort to persuade them to redirect their cash to key state and local elections.

Wealthy party donors, these Democrats say, remain too focused on giving to higher profile congressional races. And it’s coming at the expense of under-the-radar contests that could put scores of Republicans who deny the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's 2020 victory in charge of running elections and writing the rules governing them.

While Democratic candidates in top U.S. House and Senate races are flush with cash in the run-up to November, a number of those running for key state legislative and statewide posts aren’t nearly as well-heeled. At the statehouse level, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which mainly works to elect GOP state lawmakers, has spent nearly twice as much in the current election cycle as its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, according to the Center for Political Accountability.

That’s a problem in a midterm where GOP candidates who falsely claim Donald Trump won the 2020 election are on the November ballot in more than half the races for governor and at least one-third of attorney general and secretary of state races, according to States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan pro-democracy organization. At least 600 GOP state legislators who held office in 2021 lied about the 2020 election, or supported legal efforts challenging its integrity, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Arizona, a pivotal swing state and presidential battleground, is a case in point. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is flush with cash in his reelection bid — he’s raised more than $52 million to date, including $13.6 million in the most recent fundraising quarter.

But Democratic donors have been slow to dig into their pockets for Arizona’s secretary of state race, where the GOP nominee is Mark Finchem, a state legislator who has claimed repeatedly and without evidence that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud, and who says he would not have certified the election for Biden. Through mid-August, Finchem pulled in $1.2 million, compared to roughly $700,000 for Democrat Adrian Fontes, according to a report compiled for POLITICO by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“The fact that the elites are not alarmed enough and the money isn’t flowing in that direction at sufficient speed is really alarming,” said Matt Bennett, a veteran of Democratic issue campaigns and co-founder of the centrist policy group Third Way.

The concern is so significant that in early June about 40 of the party’s most influential operatives, former White House officials and past members of Congress convened privately for a slideshow — presented by Bennett — detailing how far-right activists are methodically implementing a five-point “Plot to Steal the Presidency,” according to five attendees.

The gathering marked the first major meeting of the “Paul Revere Project,” an initiative led by Third Way and self-described moderate Democrats that’s named after the 1775 midnight rider who warned American colonists the British were advancing. The thinking, according to Bennett, is that party elites and big corporate donors would be more receptive to the message coming from a more moderate policy organization that’s more ideologically attuned to their mindset, rather than a progressive group that’s less aligned with party elites.

The “plot,” according to the slide presentation, includes suppressing votes, installing “vote counters” loyal to Trump who falsely believe the last election was fraudulent, threatening elections officials, gaining control of state legislatures by “election deniers” and “sabotaging” the Electoral College.

Loyalists to Trump haven’t been chastened by the failed bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election, warned Bennett, who delivered the message in a conference room at FGS Global, among the capital’s leading crisis management firms. Rather, they have learned valuable lessons about the importance of installing allies in positions of authority — such as overseeing elections administration or writing the rules governing voting — in battleground states.

“Every person there was disturbed,” said former Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, referring to the reaction to the presentation.

What’s needed, Bennett told the group, is the same effort and coordination that goes into a presidential campaign — namely a $1 billion investment to repel a “systematic, sophisticated and serious” assault on the next presidential election that could be more successful than the 2020 slapdash approach of legal challenges and pressure on local election officials that ended in a bloody assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Priorities for big donors should include matching or exceeding “the MAGA movement in its effort to recruit poll workers,” providing them with physical protection and legal representation if they are threatened with criminal or civil sanction, funding organizations that advocate for “clean” elections and recruiting lawyers “ready to sue to stop the unconstitutional abrogation of voting rights and attempts by partisans to grab power from nonpartisan elections officials,” according to Third Way’s presentation.

“They need more money, talent, people, social media presence and attention. A LOT MORE,” the presentation says.

Several attendees described the meeting as a sobering call to action for party “influencers” to convince more donors, party elite and corporate America that they need to take a “presidential campaign approach” to protecting democracy, including elevating local officials through support for nonpartisan elections administration and a shift to prioritizing more donations to campaigns of state and local officials in several swing states. Cell phones were set aside and hardly anyone ate the food set out, according to attendees. Sitting in the front row was Cedric Richmond, a former senior adviser to Biden.

“It put it all together in one place. It is breathtaking. It is a perversion of our system,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Members of the Paul Revere group contend that only a nationally organized and sustained effort can stamp out a budding culture of “authoritarian” disdain for democratic institutions including the media, the courts, law enforcement and even the medical establishment that’s “metastasized” into an army marching toward statehouses regardless of whether Trump runs for reelection.

“We’re up against a nationally coordinated effort to dismantle and delegitimize democracy. We need to develop a nationally coordinated effort in response” to “make sure the will of the people is protected,” said Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state who beat back an effort by Trump allies in 2020 to halt certification of her state’s vote.

“One of the things we didn’t do in 2020 was really coordinate at the national level extensively with other states and other partners,” said Benson.

State and local Democratic candidates aren’t underfunded across the board. In some key battleground states, they have a decisive advantage. Benson has collected $3.7 million, to the $705,200 amassed by her GOP challenger, Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who earned Trump’s endorsement after insisting he was the real winner of the Michigan election and claiming, without evidence, that she witnessed fraud as a Detroit poll watcher. Karamo has also previously accused Democrats of having a “satanic agenda.”

“[Donors are] taking it more seriously than they have in past cycles but not seriously enough,” Benson said in a recent interview at a coffee shop in downtown Washington.

In the Pennsylvania governor’s race, Democrat Josh Shapiro’s fundraising is also far outpacing Republican Doug Mastriano, who has said he would require voters to “re-register” and has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.

If just one of the election-denying candidates wins statewide office, said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, they could use their powers to help disrupt or swing the next presidential contest.

“What a lot of voters say is, ‘They’re crazy or eccentric or weird,’ but what they are is a threat to democracy,” said Begala, who attended the June presentation. “The threat is real and it is growing.”

The effort to get big Democratic donors to recognize the importance of state and local elections and shift their gaze away from House and Senate races is a longstanding one. Then-Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean warned as far back as 2005 that the party’s failure to focus on legislative and congressional races in all 50 states would allow Republicans to draw congressional maps favorable to them. His prediction came true after 2010, when Republicans netted 721 state legislative seats and gained the majority in 22 legislative chambers, cementing GOP statehouse dominance for the next decade and enabling GOP control of the House for much of the same period.

Between 2010 and 2020, GOP groups that support gubernatorial, attorney general and state legislative candidates raised more than $1.05 billion, compared to $632 million for their Democratic counterparts, according to the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability, which tracks corporate spending in politics. Today, Republicans have complete control of 62 percent of all legislative chambers.

Dean described the party’s tendency to prioritize federal races and political action committees focused on causes such as hunger, gun safety or climate change — instead of state-level candidates and races — as a function of “their own fascination with themselves.”

In the meantime, “the far right [was] washing money” through the states, he said. Some big Democratic donors “are getting it now. But it took a long time,” he said, noting Republicans are reaping the rewards of their investment while expanding the battlefield to include state executives, law enforcement officials and state supreme courts.

A new generation of Trump-inspired lawmakers has Democratic officials warning that state legislatures could overturn the will of voters in future elections. Already, legislatures in 33 states are considering at least 244 bills that seek to undermine nonpartisan election administration, an acceleration from last year, according to a report released last month by States United Democracy Center and Law Forward, nonpartisan groups seeking to advance democracy.

Yet the party’s response remains underwhelming. Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said big donors aren’t responding this year the way they did in 2020, when the upcoming round of redistricting captured their attention. Warning of the risk that Republicans could gain legislative supermajorities in several battleground states, Wikler recently sent out an all-points bulletin aiming to raise $3,000 for his state’s legislative candidates.

“Ask a state legislative candidate if $10,000 makes a difference and they’ll start laughing,” he said. “It makes a huge difference!”

The RSLC is not only outspending the DLCC on state legislative races; it’s contributing to efforts to elect GOP secretaries of state. And the group has recently announced a more than $5 million initiative to assist in state supreme court races.

On another front — elections for state attorney general — the Republican Attorneys General Association has vastly outraised its Democratic counterpart for years: In 2018, Republicans raised $51.2 million to just $24.8 million for Democrats.

Only recently has there been signs of parity. The Democratic Attorneys General Association saw a huge influx of donations this year after the disclosure of the draft opinion in the Supreme Court’s Dobbs case and the subsequent ruling that the Constitution does not confer the right to an abortion. But that surge came primarily in the form of small donations and only gave the group a slight advantage — $6.47 million to $6.3 million — over its GOP counterpart.

“A tradition unlike any other: state Democrats realizing at the end of the cycle that their socialist agenda is toxic with voters and sending out a smoke signal to their liberal billionaire donors to bail them out of political peril,” said RSLC spokesperson Andrew Romeo, in a statement responding to the premise that Democrats are financial underdogs in state and local races.

While isolated initiatives designed to counter what some Democrats consider to be the newest threats to democracy — such as the targeting of elections administration — are taking shape on the left, these efforts aren’t necessarily fully funded.

To many Democratic activists and strategists, those efforts pale next to what they’re up against. They cite a $1.6 billion gift to Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, the largest known political advocacy donation in history, much of which they expect to flow to state-level coffers, including for attorney general, secretary of state and state supreme courts.

“A significant investment from big donors would make a big difference,” said Geoff Burgan, spokesperson for DAGA.

“We need more resources. Period,” he said.