Thoughts on Fundraising

Today, I’m going to write a little bit about fundraising.

Back in January, I decided to launch a project that has come to dominate the non-work hours of my 2020: The Long Leaf Pine Slate. Almost every night and weekend of this year, I’ve done something (or a lot of things) for “the Slate.” (If you are unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, you have doubtlessly seen me tweeting about it.) This has turned into a much bigger project than I’d expected. We are well over six figures in our total raised now. The Slate is now the biggest independent channel of funding in the state to Democrats running for the North Carolina legislature. We have raised and contributed more money than any of the traditional PACs in the state, and most of out-of-state ones, too.

You should absolutely give to the Slate, but that’s not really what this blog is about. Instead, I want to talk about fundraising itself, why I’m doing it, and why you should maybe consider doing the same.

Why Fundraising

After watching Trump get elected and extremist, far-right crazies run amok here in North Carolina, thanks to a hyperpartisan gerrymander that the Supreme Court refused to fix, I knew I wanted to do something. But I wasn’t sure what.

I live in a safely Democratic district with great representation. With a demanding full-time job and a toddler, attending street protests just isn’t an option for me most of the time. Moreover, protesting and writing letters somehow felt inadequate. I knew I could do more. But what?

The answer became pretty clear: fundraising.

Fundraising is an extremely unsexy, even icky, part of our political process. No one likes being asked for money and no one likes asking for it, either. I really wrestled with it. I really did not want to beg people for money. But the more I thought about it, I realized that fundraising was the thing I could do that would have the biggest impact. And it was also, I knew, among the most effective ways I could use the numerous privileges I enjoy to create progressive change.

So I didn’t really like it. But I decided to do it anyway. I would lean into being a fundraiser.

Money Really Matters

Money does not buy elections – but it sure makes a difference. Bad candidates with lots of money lose to good ones with less of it all the time. (Mike Bloomberg says hi!) Money is one of those “necessary, but not sufficient” things – you need enough of it to be competitive, and in the right hands, in the right situations, it can make or break a race. But money alone won’t buy you victory.

Political campaigns cost a lot of money. Here in North Carolina, state house races typically run a few hundred thousand dollars in total raised (and state senate campaigns are more). There’s no magic party treasure chest ready to pay for that, so candidates are almost entirely on the hook for raising it themselves. That means that the independently wealthy have a massive advantage and corporate PAC support – which goes overwhelmingly to Republicans – makes a big difference.

(Before you interject: yes, I know that there’s too much money in politics. There’s nothing we can do about this, at least right now. You’d need a new Supreme Court to change anything at all. So move on.)

Democrats are required to spend comparatively more of their time on fundraising, because we get a lot less corporate PAC money and tend to rely more on small donors. In fact, a lot of Democratic candidates are eschewing the former entirely and making pledges not to accept any corporate contributions at all. This is great, because corporate contributions are a direct route for corruption, but unfortunately it’s also sort of a unilateral disarmament against an opponent that is always hungry for moar corporate PAC money. (Lots of NC Republicans are letting corporations finance up to 75% of their whole campaigns.) If you’re not taking corporate dollars, then you’ve gotta make that up somehow.

Every candidate running for office has a budget they need to meet in order to capitalize their campaign. If 10 corporate PACs pony up max-out checks, then you might just be done for the month. (And you’ll definitely want to do them favors later.) Otherwise, you need to raise it. The way candidates raise money is by calling up donors and begging for money: “call time.” And every hour – every minute – that our candidates spend in call time is time they’re not using campaigning, telling their story and spreading their message with voters.

What I tell the hundreds of supporters of the Slate now is that every dollar we raise for our candidates is another few seconds they can spend not fundraising, and instead reaching out to voters. I say this because it’s true. We’re literally buying back our candidates’ time so they can do what we need them to do to win: persuade voters.

Putting your privilege to work

A thing you have to realize about political fundraising is that almost no one gives to political campaigns. It’s a vanishingly tiny fraction of the public that even considers it at all.

Even in the best of times, it’s easy to understand why this is, but in the middle of a horrific recession, it’s even more so. This pandemic-borne recession, even more than most, has worsened the chasm of inequality in our society and economy. The number of people who’d even consider giving some extra money to a political candidate is smaller than ever now. Perversely, some people are doing better than ever financially, while others face utter catastrophe. If you were reasonably affluent before COVID and the recession, you’re more than likely still pretty comfortable. And if you were barely hanging on before, you’re probably dealing with disaster now.

Those of us with the enormous fortune to be financially secure, in this time more than any, have an opportunity – perhaps a duty – to help those without the same material means. I believe that progressive political change is one of the most effective long-term ways to build a fairer and more just society. Raising money for the political candidates we need to win in order to make that change happen is not the only thing that matters – the protests we’ve seen this year, for example, have also been enormously effective in shifting public opinion. But at the end of the day, to create political change, we need candidates to win. And that requires money.

Another thing that bears mentioning is that non-white candidates are often at a big fundraising disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. Because personal networks are so important for candidates raising money, the racial wealth gap automatically starts most Black and Latinx candidates behind. Liberal white donors (like me) may be happy to support them, but there just aren’t that many of us. Remember, most white people vote Republican. Trump, like Romney before him, won white voters by 20 points.

If you are a liberal white person with some disposable income, that automatically puts you in a pretty small group of people – with a lot of power. And using those privileges of race, wealth and status to help fund progressive political change, with a particular emphasis on candidates of color, is – in my view – a very good place to help level the playing field a little.

There are many political actors who see COVID as an opportunity to advance their personal business interests – and they are capitalizing right now. Those of us with the ability to help fight back need to do so.

What you can do

When this election is over, I’m going to write a separate blog about the nuts-and-bolts I’ve learned about political fundraising and how anyone can do it. There’s a lot to say.

We’re 64 days out from the biggest election of our lifetimes, so now is not the time to start anything new. If anything here has inspired you to get involved, here’s what I’d suggest.

  • Give to Biden or any close Senate candidate (which excludes Amy McGrath) if you want, but I think they’re pretty well set for money. Unless you are incredibly wealthy, I’d skip them. Money will not be a limiting factor in those races, particularly at this stage.
  • The Long Leaf Pine Slate is the single best way to help Democrats defeat gerrymandering and win a majority in the North Carolina legislature. This will have national implications, and is one of the highest-impact places for your dollar.
  • I have personally learned a lot about this process from Maciej Ceglowski, creator of The Great (State) Slate. If you are interested in a national effort to flip state legislatures, I heartily endorse giving to the Great Slate (which also includes many of our NC candidates). For what it’s worth, I think that Maciej has been one of the most politically effective folks to come out of Silicon Valley who isn’t worth 9+ figures. He’s a big inspiration.

Most importantly – get involved somehow. And stay involved. No matter what happens on November 3rd (or in any ballot-counting chaos that may ensue), a committed, organized, progressive movement that stays engaged is critical. We’re at a turning point in the country right now. Make sure you can be proud of what you contributed.

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