Money Changes Everything

Money in politics is nothing new.  William McKinley’s political fixer, Mark Hanna, famously said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Hanna spoke at the end of the first Gilded Age of staggering inequality and government corruption. In this modern political age defined by Supreme Court cases like Citizens United, this is truer now than ever.  It even impacts our state and local races here in Tennessee.

 

Most of us are familiar with the fact that the cost of national races ballooned in the past decade.  The 2012 presidential campaign saw the first race to cost more than $2 billion and it was the first time neither candidate accepted any public financing or the limits that come with it. Further, it was the first presidential election after Citizens United which allowed around $600 million in super PAC donations for that election cycle, as well as many millions more to go to nonprofit “social welfare” groups, not required to disclose their donors.

 

At the state and local level, PACs and big donors do not operate on the same scale as national races, but they are no less influential on the outcome of races.  As a result of efforts by conservative bundlers and big donors in election cycles over the last ten years to raise significant campaign funding for candidates they recruit,  the cost of running races for certain seats on the Memphis City Council has ballooned.  Since 2007, most contested campaigns for Super District 9 seats have seen spending in the range of $200,000-$300,000.  Even running for Memphis City Council District 5 has recently become a very expensive proposition. According to recent candidates for that seat, the average campaign cost for District 5 races prior to 2007 had been under $100,000. However, in 2007, now Mayor Jim Strickland spent well into six figures in his successful run for the District. The 2015 City Council five-way race for Strickland’s open seat saw spending topping $500K, mainly due to one candidate who spent over $300,000 alone.  The two best financed candidates then ended up going to an expensive runoff beyond the initial election.  Ultimately, that race was won by the candidate with the largest backing, but the least experience in public service.

 

The essential problem is that money is needed to drive name recognition and turnout.  Particularly in primaries or during local elections, it can be challenging to get voters to show up. Name recognition is very significant in local races.  Activities like canvassing, phone banking and direct mailings are essential to reach voters, educate them on the candidate and encourage them to get them to the polls.   Campaign funding is necessary to make sure all of these operations are carried out.

 

Money in politics isn’t going anywhere and it doesn’t mean that change cannot happen.  As one recent local candidate noted, money isn’t inherently bad; “however, what matters is who is giving it and why.”

 

When Republican super-donors are giving $300,000-$400,000 to one City Council candidate, what is the way forward for progressive candidates without access to that kind of money?  Ironically, just as recent Presidential races showed us the excesses of a Citizens United world, these races also show us how we can combat the effect of big money donors.  The sort of online small dollar fundraising employed by Sen. Sanders and President Obama can be employed to level the playing field in local races.  Tens of thousands of small donations were made in those races, allowing the grassroots to support successful progressive candidates.  Indeed, one of the objectives of Future901 is to build this kind of fundraising structure to help with progressive races locally.

 

Using  the 2015 District 5 race as an example, if 5,000 people were willing to give $50 each to help fund one local progressive candidate, that progressive candidate would raise $250,000 and would be in a position to compete with well-funded candidates.

 

Former State Senator Beverly Marrero notes that Republicans have done a better job locally of getting their grassroots to prioritize consistent giving. As Sen. Marrero has noted, some donors will give consistently because they are trying to gain access.  She observed interestingly that female donors often do not seem to understand this and invariable give lesser amounts. She said the most generous female donors she knows personally are former Republicans turned Democrat. The Republicans have spent decades grooming candidates and cultivating donors. Observed Sen. Marrero“We all have a responsibility to work for the best candidates possible and money is a big part of that this day and age.”

 

Future901 is dedicated to supporting and electing progressive candidates at the state and local level.  One of the ways that we are doing that is by building a donor base to support progressive candidates.  In recent elections, good progressive candidates have been outspent by a small group of conservative moneyed interests.  Acting together, we can level the playing field.  You can help by making a one time or recurring contribution via our ActBlue account at: https://secure.actblue.com/contribute/page/future901 .

-Judith Johnson 

Legislative Victory

For a progressive living in a gerrymandered red state, it’s sometimes impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel. But once in a while, we score a victory for Team Blue. Last fall I found myself managing Dwayne Thompson’s campaign for Tennessee House District 96.  On November 8, as Democrats across the nation were taking a beating in the presidential race, Dwayne Thompson eked out a victory against Republican Steve McManus. House District 96 encompasses most of Cordova and areas of Germantown and unincorporated east Shelby County. It was the only 2016Democratic gain in the ultra Republican Tennessee legislature. It was a hard fought campaign, and it came down to a mere 365 votes.  Many of the politicos around town were shocked at the upset, but it was not as much of a surprise to those familiar with the district.

So how did we make it happen? It boiled down to a few key factors: 1) the changing demographics of the district, with a rising tide of Democratic voters; 2) a hard-working candidate who knew his district well, canvassed extensively, and focused on issues that mattered to voters in the district; 3) access to adequate resources, both human and financial; and finally, it must be admitted, 4) a complacent opponent. None of these factors individually would have been enough to tip the scale, but the combination made the race winnable.

Having lived in Cordova for the past twenty years, Dwayne understood the nature of the district, and had studied the changing voting patterns. HD-96, with a few exceptions on either side of the curve, is solidly middle class.  The racial mix of the district is approximately 2/3 white, 1/4 African American, and the remainder Hispanic and Other. Many of the voters fall in the middle of the political spectrum, although there are a couple of precincts that are still heavily conservative.  Dwayne had run for the same seat in 2014 and lost, but the fact that he had actually earned 38% of the votes gave him hope, knowing that the presidential race in 2016 would increase voter turnout among voters who tend to vote Democratic. 

In order to take advantage of the increased turnout, however, Dwayne knew that he had to work hard to gain name recognition. The candidate himself began canvassing in the spring, during the months leading up to the primary.  Canvassing was a daily event for him.  He did have a helper or two, but much of his early canvassing was by himself.   Once Thompson had won the primary, however, we added teams of canvassers most days, both paid and volunteer. As early voting approached, we had enough canvassers and callers to reach out to every voter that had been identified as a supporter, reminding them of early voting dates, times and locations. The weekend before the election, we made another push to reach out to anyone who had not voted yet.  All of this is basic campaign tactics, but many campaigns lack the resources to follow through. Having a candidate who was out there on the front lines every weekend working side by side with the volunteers helped to earn and retain good workers.  It was also impressive to voters, even a few Republicans, many of whom had never had a candidate actively seeking their votes and listening to their concerns.  Dwayne’s hard work was not limited to canvassing.  Once early voting began, he or one of his trusted campaign workers was at the Agricenter every day.  The efforts of the team at the Agricenter cannot be understated.  They were salespeople – they approached voters with enthusiasm, and actually garnered a good number of votes.  Looking at the returns, early voting is where Dwayne won the race. 

In terms of resources, fundraising was a problem.  Dwayne Thompson had been a fixture of Shelby County Democratic politics for decades, and many of local experts had written off his campaign as just another quixotic effort to break the Republican stranglehold in east Shelby.  In spite of this attitude, the campaign did get some meaningful union donations.  It was the TNDP, however, who stepped in and filled the gap.  They would not have done so, however, if they had not seen an opportunity in the race, and if the candidate himself had not already covered a lot of ground in the district.  With the financial resources at the campaign’s disposal, we were able to afford a paid political consultant, paid canvassers, a campaign manager, and a few targeted radio ads, in addition to the usual printed materials, tee shirts, and so on.  The TNDP and the House Democratic Caucus helped with independent expenditures in the form of mailers, advertising, and phone banking.

The incumbent was notably weak.  Preliminary polling by the TNDP revealed that Representative McManus had very low name recognition in the district, and held only a smalllead, in spite of serving several terms in office.  That is what convinced the party to conduct a more in-depth survey, which revealed further opportunities.  The fact that Dwayne had already been campaigning hard in the district convinced the party that his campaign was worth the investment.  Opportunities like this don’t happen very often, and Dwayne was able to take advantage of it.

Dwayne Thompson ran an old fashioned campaign.  He stuck to his district.  He had a thorough ground game.  He had the resources to focus on turnout and he had a complacent opponent.  This made it possible to capitalize on a unique set of circumstances and is now serving his constituents well in the legislature.  We need to prepare ourselves to defend our hard-fought gains.  Next year, Dwayne will surely have a well funded Republican opponent, and he will need all the volunteers and funding he can get. Right now, we can help by contributing to his campaign.  January and the fundraising blackout period during the legislative term are right around the corner, so the time to act is now.  Please contribute to Dwayne Thompson’s re-election campaign  (www.votethompson96.com) or to Future901 (https://secure.actblue.com/contribute/page/future901) as we work to put more progressives into office.         

-        Diane Cambron