Like Night and Day: Comparing Bernie Sanders' Down-Ballot Fundraising to That of Hillary Clinton
Better late than never, I guess?
That seems to be the growing consensus after Bernie Sanders announced yesterday that he would finally(!) begin to support down-ballot Democratic candidates after failing to do so for the previous ten months. Of course, the timing of this decision couldn't have been more obvious: Sanders has recently faced harsh criticism over his appearance with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC where Sanders responded with a noncommittal "We'll see" as to whether or not he would work to help elect fellow down-ballot progressive candidates who could help him enact his political revolution. Combine that with Sanders' monumentally disastrous New York Daily News interview as well as his egregious claim that the Pope invited him to speak at a conference at the Vatican which was later proven to be false and Sanders needed something, anything, to get back on the public's, and more specifically, New Yorkers' good graces.
Yet right away there seemed to be something odd about this newfound political charity in which Sanders became engaged. The first oddity was the fundraising method itself. Rather than use the joint fundraising account that Sanders had opened with the DNC for the sole purpose of helping to elect down-ballot candidates, Sanders opted instead to send out an email to his supporters, asking them to make a special contribution that would go toward three candidates that Sanders had selected to help join him in his movement. That special contribution was being done through a web page paid for by ActBlue which is "not authorized by any candidate or any candidate's committee." What's odd about this is that it appears, at least initially, that Sanders won't be using any of his existing campaign funds to help the candidates but will instead be relying on an entirely new batch of contributions. For a campaign that has $17 million on hand as well as an already established means for raising funds, it seems strange for the campaign to go out of its way and use a third party vendor while claiming to be supporting these candidates in their upcoming races.
In addition to the means of supporting the candidates, there also arises a question as to why these three candidates in particular were chosen. Being a political junkie, I can tell you right off the bat that I have no idea who Lucy Flores, Zephyr Teachout, and Pramila Jayapal are or what state they are from. Upon doing some research, it seems that Flores is a candidate for Congress in Nevada's 4th congressional district and will face state senator Ruben Kihuen in the Democratic primary in an effort to replace a Democratic congressman who chose not to seek reelection. Next, it appears that Teachout actually challenged Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2014 and is now is a candidate for Congress in New York's 19th congressional district, a swing district with a retiring Republican congressman. And lastly, it looks like Jayapal is a candidate for Congress in Washington's 7th district, a liberal district that will have two additional candidates along with Jayapal vying to replace a retiring Democratic congressman.
On the surface, these would appear to be odd choices for Sanders to support. After all, only Teachout is the clear frontrunner as well as the only candidate being from a true swing district. For Flores and Jayapal, it appears that even if they lose, the seats in question will remain blue so Sanders' support doesn't help swing the seat in any meaningful way. Plus, it seems strange for a presidential candidate to intervene in a primary that has yet to be decided. After all, this is the exact reason why President Obama hasn't intervened in the Democratic primary: he wants to remain neutral and let the voters decide. For Sanders to openly intervene in two yet to be decided races seems particularly unusual, especially when Sanders himself has unquestionably benefited from President Obama's neutrality throughout the primary process.
Why then did Bernie Sanders decide to support these three candidates in particular?
The answer: politics. Sanders' first foray into supporting the Democratic Party was done so in an effort to single out three congressional candidates who have all gone on the record in support of his candidacy. Jayapal has openly supported Sanders since August and recently introduced him at a rally in Seattle ahead of the Washington caucus. Along those same lines, Teachout has been supporting Sanders since December and even contributed an article on The Huffington Post on her reasons in doing so. And Flores went on record supporting Sanders in January ahead of the Nevada caucus. In the eyes of Bernie Sanders, these people are the kinds of candidates he feels could best help enact his political revolution should he be elected president.
But the question for Sanders then becomes what now? He has identified three candidates who support him, so will he continue to fundraise for others who have done the same? Will he specifically target swing districts or simply support whoever has gone on records supporting him? Would he support someone who may have previously supported Hillary Clinton if it means picking up a seat in the House or Senate? And what happens if one of the other Democratic candidates win in Nevada or Washington? Will they feel spurned by Sanders? What motivation would they then have to support a president who openly supported their opponent during their state's democratic primary should they be elected to Congress?
Odds are, Sanders hasn't considered any of this.
So let's then compare Sanders' approach to down-ballot fundraising with Hillary Clinton. In addition to fundraising for her own political campaign, Clinton created what has become known as the Hillary Victory Fund in August of 2015. The Victory Fund, as it is called, is a joint fundraising committee for Hillary for America, the Democratic National Committee, and 33 state Democratic Party committees and is designed to raise funds for Democratic candidates from the top of the ticket on downwards. The establishment of this fund was actually seen as unusual, as previous "victory funds" had not been established by presidential candidates until after they had been formally nominated at their party's convention. However, Clinton and the DNC wanted to raise funds early in an effort to identify key races and to also help support already established candidates in their effort to go up against the big money of the Koch Brothers, whom they knew would be targeting select competitive House and Senate races. With her Victory Fund, Clinton was essentially creating an early political roadmap to retake the Senate and to make gains in the House come the November election.
To do this, the first step was to raise funds and this is where the Victory Fund differs from what Bernie Sanders has chosen to do. First off, Clinton has a link to the Victory Fund on her website so potential donors knows right away that the campaign is involved. Once funds come in, they are divvied up from top to bottom with Hillary for America getting up to $5,400 (the maximum amount allowable by law with $2,700 going toward the primary and $2,700 going toward the general election). Should an individual choose to give more, the next $33,400 would then go to the Democratic National Committee to be delegated in a way that best fit their needs. Lastly, each addition $10,000 over that amount would then go to one of the 33 state parties, which would decide the best way to spread out those funds. Putting all those potential contributions together, the maximum annual donation an individual could give would be $356,100. In addition to individuals, PACs are also allowed to donate to the Victory Fund and their maximum amounts end up being $5,000 for Hillary for America, $15,000 for the DNC, and $5,000 per state party.
As you can see, the Victory Fund is an all-encompassing fundraising endeavor, designed to bring in large amounts of money to spread throughout the Democratic Party. Therefore, in order to bring in these large amounts of money, large-scale fundraisers are held. These normally involve celebrities and are held at fancy locations. Among those who have hosted events have been George and Amal Clooney, Elton John and Katy Perry, and Sting, just to name a few. These events have helped raise over $26 million through 2015 and with additional events having being held in 2016 that number is likely close to $40 million by this point. To get a sense for how the Victory Fund then uses the money, take September of 2015 as an example. During that month the Victory Fund spent $800,000 on fundraising and campaign salaries, gave $600,000 to the DNC, and left $1.75 million to be divided amongst the state parties, depending upon their needs. At the end of 2015, the Victory Fund had spent roughly $14 million of the $26 million it had raised as it was in the process of determining which races to specifically target in the spring of 2016.
What's most ironic about all this is the fact that Bernie Sanders constantly denigrates Hillary Clinton for having these expensive fundraising events for the Victory Fund, but it is these events that may very well elect a Democratic president and Democratic Senate. While Bernie Sanders hoards the six million contributions his campaign had collected and refuses to use his joint DNC account, Hillary Clinton is out raising money up and down the Democratic ballot regardless of whom the Democratic candidates may be supporting. Yes, that's right: someone like Lucy Flores may very well be receiving campaign help from Hillary Clinton's Victory Fund via the Nevada State Democratic Party even though she's gone on record as supporting Bernie Sanders. Because to Hillary Clinton, it doesn't matter who these Democratic candidates support now, it's that they win at all costs come November.
Unfortunately, that is what Bernie Sanders still doesn't get. You can't create a political revolution three candidates at a time. You can't help fundraise for two candidates in solidly blue districts and expect that will make all the difference come November. You can't continue to criticize Hillary Clinton's "fancy George Clooney fundraisers" when a single fundraiser does more for the Democratic Party in one night than you've done for the party during your 25 years in Congress. You can't rely on millions of people to rise up and overthrow the political establishment if you're not going to help elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot. And you can't continue to run on the Democratic ticket if the only person you truly support is Bernie Sanders.
Because a revolution of one isn't a revolution at all. It fails at every level. A candidate wanting to create a political revolution should not be shamed into supporting his fellow progressive candidates. Much like his New York Daily News interview, Sanders' lack of support for his fellow Democratic candidates shows he has never thought through his revolution. He doesn't care about a democratic House or a democratic Senate, all he cares about is Bernie Sanders. To financially aid candidates simply because they support you isn't a revolution; it's political nepotism. It shows that Sanders would rather back people he agrees with rather than ones locked in tight races. That's not helping the Democratic Party. That's not even helping Bernie Sanders. That's simply political pandering and it doesn't do anyone a bit of good. Because in order to do actual good for the Democratic Party, Sanders would have to conclude that his revolution is reliant upon others rather than himself.
And to admit that would absolutely crush everything Bernie Sanders has come to believe about himself, his campaign, and his political revolution.
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