The Long Leaf Pine Slate – Lessons Learned

Back last winter – in the beforetimes, as they say now – I did a lot of thinking about how I could be most politically impactful in this election cycle. What I landed on was fundraising focused on my state legislature here in North Carolina. I wrote a blog about it – one of the few I’ve gotten around to writing this year – and promised a follow-up on what I learned about the nuts-and-bolts of indie political fundraising. So here is that follow-up.

When I launched the Long Leaf Pine Slate in January of 2020, I figured I might be able to raise a few thousand dollars from family and friends. Not much, but something. We wound up doing a lot more than that. “The Slate” caught fire, and over the course of the year, became the largest independent channel of funding based in the state to Democrats running for the North Carolina state legislature. We raised more than $300,000 from over a thousand donors for a small group of our most strategic Democratic candidates running against vulnerable Republican incumbents.

That may not sound like much if you’re used to reading about Senate races which raise tens of millions. But at the state legislative scale, that’s actually very big money. Here’s some comparison to give you a sense of scale:

If the Long Leaf Pine Slate were a PAC, we’d have been the third-largest in the state and the single largest donor to Democrats based in North Carolina. Better: all of that money went to just a small group of our most important races. We raised almost as much money for those select Democrats as Duke Energy – basically the evil empire of right-wing power in North Carolina – gave to Republicans. (Directly, anyway. More on that later.)

The Long Leaf Pine Slate was nothing but a website that linked to an ActBlue fundraising page featuring our candidates and a Twitter account. When donors gave, every dollar thus went directly to our candidates’ campaigns, nowhere else. The Slate was not, itself, a PAC – meaning we didn’t touch any money. You could not, for example, write a check to the Long Leaf Pine Slate. We didn’t even have a bank account. It was a 100% volunteer project.

Something similar to this – a no-nonsense ActBlue fundraising slate for state legislative candidates – should exist in every state. If you’re reading this, maybe you should start one, or join up with others who are. The purpose of this blog is to offer up some lessons learned, and maybe – just maybe – convince you, dear reader, that you can do this too.

Why this model works

An ActBlue fundraising page literally takes every dollar that is contributed and just slices it up among the campaign recipients you list. If there are ten campaigns listed, then each gets 10 cents. It’s that simple. What you see is what you get.

Old-fashioned PACs and parties act as intermediaries between a donor and the campaigns that need their money, and this causes lots of problems. Unfortunately, both (but particularly PACs) tend to be incredibly inefficient ways for donors to help the good guys, and wind up spending lots of money on things other than getting candidates elected. Very, very few people who give to PACs or parties ever actually look at the disclosures to see where their money went. Without naming names, I have been personally disappointed when I actually saw the spending disclosures from progressive PACs that I thought were good, but turned out to be big money-furnaces for politicos to get paid. (Caveat: yes, there are some good PACs too. They’re just rarer than you’d think.)

Besides its transparency, another large advantage of the ActBlue model is it allows organizations to raise substantially more money per candidate. If we’d been a PAC, we would’ve been limited to giving $5,400 per endorsed candidate – the legal maximum in North Carolina. But in the ActBlue model, we’re not the donor – in a way, we’re just pointing the actual donors to a list of candidates and saying, “these are the folks to give to.” So when you get lots and lots of folks giving money through that page, and each one can give up to the legal limit, it really adds up. ActBlue allows you to see just how much folks have given through your page, which is how we know the Slate raised so much money, almost entirely from folks who never would’ve found our candidates otherwise.

Fun fact: unlike the PACs, the Long Leaf Pine Slate is completely invisible on NC campaign finance reports. All the reports show is the donors, not the online channel they used. This keeps the Republican oppo researchers guessing and the media clueless. But the candidates know very well, because their ActBlue candidate dashboards show exactly what fundraising pages their money is coming from.

Legal stuff: every state is different, but this model is perfectly compliant everywhere I’m aware of. In North Carolina, there are certain conditions where you need to establish a political committee to promote candidates for office – like if you spend much money doing it. We thus had a (very, very low) spending limit for this project. This is the reason for the Slate’s extremely basic webpage – it’s literally just a hardcoded HTML file sitting on AWS. Dirt cheap! (I had lots of folks write in offering their help to create a much fancier webpage. This was very generous, but I could do that too. It’s basic because we couldn’t afford to do something nicer. I’m not kidding when I said our spending limit was low.)

Check out this explanatory post about the Long Leaf Pine Slate that covers why raising money matters, why it’s hard for most candidates, and why that difficulty enables a lot of corporate corruption in our politics.

What we did

After I built the website and set up the ActBlue page, I knew that making a splash on social would be vital to winning eyeballs and attention for the Slate. So pre-launch, I begged a lot of big-audience folks on Twitter for retweets. Believe me, it felt as cringeworthy as it sounds. But incredibly, some obliged, including Jason Kander, Bakari Sellers, Jeff Jackson, Clint Smith, Dan Pfeiffer and several more. The initial pop sent a lot of traffic and eyeballs on the project, and a little money. It made a difference. (Over time, I noticed that social eyeballs were good for traffic, but not so much for money.)

But what really made the Slate grow was just flogging it relentlessly every day. It was honestly a real grind. I sent hundreds of cold emails. (Didn’t work.) I promoted the Slate on Twitter, explaining why it was important. (Kinda worked.) I blogged about it (useful for inbound traffic, sometimes for money).

What I found was that successfully fundraising requires you to be needy, persistent and a little bit pushy. Very, very few people will ever volunteer to give you money. You have to ask. And the vast majority of people you ask (directly or not) will say no. And just like in a job interview, you can’t take it personally. (If I cold emailed you and asked for money, sorry!) Asking for money sucks. I don’t like it and I don’t think anyone else does, either. But doing so for a good cause makes it a little easier, and over time, I got used to it.

I just kept doing this all year. Call it a “hustle” or “bootstrapping” or whatever you like, but slowly and gradually, folks started paying attention. We started raising more money. A real audience began to develop. I started writing email updates to our donors, and those were a hit. Our list grew.

Speaking of email, another fun fact: as a fundraising page owner, ActBlue gives you the ability to ask your donors whether they want to share their email addresses with the recipient campaigns or not. I enabled this, so that every contributor to the Slate got to choose. The Slate still gets your email address, but whether recipient campaigns do was up to you. I now have a rather large donor list, and I made everyone a promise: the Slate will never, ever share or sell your email. It’s just not a deal I’m interested in. You’re welcome.

I knew we must be doing something right when Republican spies started sniffing around. I started getting emails from “supporters” I didn’t recognize, from obviously fake email addresses, asking for recordings from candidate calls. (America Rising lackeys, I see you!) The Slate works in public, so this was fine – a vote of confidence if nothing else.

So, what happened?

I won’t bury the lede here: we still lost many of the races we backed.

So was this all a failure? Nah. The money mattered. But as I always remind people, money is just ammunition. It doesn’t buy races. We were able to raise money early in the cycle, which mattered a lot for our candidates. (For a campaign, $1 in October is worth $5 in January.) We funded candidates in “frontier” districts, where the fundamentals were hard, often in rural and exurban areas. Most of our candidates outperformed Biden in their districts, but unfortunately, the “top of the ticket” just didn’t perform as well in NC as we needed it to. Democrats nationwide had a rather poor showing downballot, so it wasn’t just us.

But it wasn’t a total loss. Some of our candidates (both millennials!) won. In other places, we funded campaigns where there hadn’t been a really legit Democratic campaign in a decade or more. Even though we lost, there’s now a network of volunteers in place and up-to-date supporter lists that will make subsequent campaigns much stronger. To win, you need to run candidates in difficult districts, and when you do that, some of them are going to lose.

Besides – we were also badly outspent. Remember Duke Energy above? Well, aside from their direct (“hard”) giving, they sunk millions of dollars into a dark-money super PAC to run ads and mailers vilifying Democrats. So did the NC Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s super PAC, Citizens for a Better North Carolina, was run by two former top aides to Phil Berger (the GOP State Senate leader) who now have their own political consultancy. (Though of course, I’m sure all of their business was conducted without any illegal coordination with the state party. Heaven forbid!) There are Democratic super PACs too, of course, but with nothing like the deep pockets the corporate special interests have.

Here’s what you should do

State legislatures are woefully, criminally overlooked as opportunities to make progressive change happen. More progressives should care. And the Long Leaf Pine Slate is a pretty good model for activists to make an impact.

Every state should have its own version of the Slate, where folks anywhere can contribute to the candidates who matter – not the safe-district incumbents, or to long-shot vanity campaigns. For folks like me, who don’t know anything at all about the state politics in Michigan or Texas or Nevada, I need a one-stop shop where I can send money and know it’s going to the right campaigns in that state. Who’s doing this in your state? Maybe it should be you.

What’s more, these efforts should be based in-state.

I counted at least 7 or 8 out-of-state groups raising money for certain NC legislative candidates. May Zeus bless and keep them all. But here’s the problem: we have no idea if they’ll be around next cycle. If the spreadsheets in some Beltway office park look different in ‘22 or ‘24, those organizations will move on to another state, and North Carolina will be left back at Square 1 again. That’s not really sustainable. State-level organizations that are committed to change in their own backyards are where we have to start.

If you’re an out-of-state organization ready to raise funds, work with an in-state partner. Help build some lasting and sustainable organizational infrastructure. We have a real lack of that here in North Carolina, as in many states, and it’s a perennial handicap for Democrats.

So what’s next for the Long Leaf Pine Slate?

Glad you asked. We’re working on Phase 2 right now and will have more to say later. Check out the Slate’s Substack, and sign up to get updates when they come out. Want to help? Drop me a line. Want to do this in your own state, but aren’t sure where to start? I’m happy to help. HMU.

The work continues. Thanks to everyone who made the Slate a success. We’re not done. Let’s get going.

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