This is a Feature, Not a Bug
Over at The New Republic, which improved immeasurably since Marty Peretz was forced out.
Case in point, this article on how the consultant class of the Democratic Party establishment (There is no Democratic Party establishment) is robbing the donors blind.
In the closing days before the November 2020 election, Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot challenging the powerful Republican incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, sent a series of email blasts to her followers. The race was “tightening,” one said, and she needed more money “to hit Mitch harder than ever before.” Another urgent-sounding appeal hinted that a cash crunch might be at hand: “After tonight, we’ll have to make some big choices about the budget.” Yet another warned, “[W]e simply can’t afford to scale back any of our programs in the final days of this election.”
There was little evidence the contest was tightening. McGrath’s internal polls late in the summer gave her campaign team at least a little hope, but by October that was no longer the case. As for money, she already had enough. In fact, she had raised more than enough — tens of millions of dollars more — than what was needed to run a robust campaign in the state of Kentucky. By Election Day, McGrath had brought in a record-obliterating $94 million — $63 million more than had ever been raised for a campaign in Kentucky. McConnell dramatically stepped up his fundraising this time around, but she still outpaced him by $27 million.
Modern political campaigns like McGrath’s are multimillion-dollar pop-ups. The operatives involved in them raise the money, spend it, shut it all down after Election Day, and move on. They are not accountable to a board of directors or to the donors who fund the campaigns. A big chunk of the cash raised from donors comes back to the campaign pros in the form of fees and commissions for creating TV and digital advertising — for placing those ads, which is known as media buying — and for the fundraising itself. McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, had stepped away from politics for six years before getting back into the game to work with her. He viewed himself as an outsider and was critical of the campaign ecosystem. “An incestuous f%$#ing orgy of money,” is how he referred to it in one of our conversations.
With days to go in the campaign, and no way to spend the money that they had, they continued to raise money. McGrath did in Kentucky, Sara Gideon ($74.5 million)did it in Maine, and Jaime Harrison ($130.5 million) did it in South Carolina.
None of the races were even close, and Gideon ended with almost $15 million in the bank.
In the minds of a growing number of Democratic activists, too many campaigns abused small donors by taking advantage of the traits they tend to hold in tandem: passion, and a lack of political savvy. With Democrats’ razor-thin margins in both the House and the Senate, and the stakes so high in the 2022 midterms, the temptation will be to do it again — or perhaps to ratchet it up even more. But at what cost? And to what end? Is it really good enough to say: Well, at least our tactics aren’t as bad as the Republicans? The long-term danger is that small donors, barraged with overheated email pleas that range in veracity from half-truths to outright bullsh%$, will eventually catch on.
Josh Nelson, a Democratic digital strategist, is among the operatives, most of them from the Democrats’ progressive wing, trying to get the party to abide by more ethical standards. “I just don’t think you can view people on your list as ATM machines, or like they’re idiots,” he said. “It might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable.”
In every competitive Senate race in 2020 where a Democratic challenger went up against an entrenched Republican incumbent, the candidates on both sides were funded at record-high levels. In each of them, the Democratic challengers were better funded. All the contests were of course influenced by their own state-specific factors. But money was the thing they had in common. In closely watched, bitterly fought Georgia, the dual victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the upper chamber. The Georgia races were extraordinarily expensive, with more than $500 million spent during the general election and runoff by the four candidates and the outside groups backing them. And although Warnock and Ossoff had the edge in the fundraising, no one I talked to for this story thought they won because they had more money. Instead, credit for turning Georgia blue was largely given to statewide organizing conducted by Stacey Abrams and others over the last decade. That’s the kind of patient, on-the-ground work that is the antithesis of the pop-up campaign.
By the end, the McGrath campaign had 200-plus employees and a monthly payroll of nearly $1 million. But like most campaigns of its size, the bulk of its dollars were going to outside vendors. McGrath sent a combined $58 million to the agency that placed television ads, Buying Time, and to another that made and placed digital ads, Do Big Things. Most of that money would have gone from the agencies directly to local television stations, as well as to Facebook and Google, but the firms take commissions. Those are negotiated and can be as high as 20 percent of the buy. Generally, the more a campaign spends, the lower the rates it can get.
Nickolas became the campaign’s director of paid media. Two weeks after the election, he received a $367,000 payment from the campaign. When I asked about it, he said it was something he had negotiated based on a percentage of the campaign’s ad buy, and it seemed fair to him, considering the money that outside vendors had raked in. “The money is offensive, and I hate it,” he said. “And it goes to the consulting class. People like me come and go, but they’re the permanent members.”
Stupid overspending is encouraged because the consultants make just as much money on stupid spending as they do on smart spending, and stupid spending is way easier.
Democrats were already feeling anxious about the 2022 midterms. Losing the governor’s race in Virginia in 2021 — Glenn Youngkin’s shocking victory over former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe — turned nervousness into something more like panic. That won’t hurt, either. Digital practitioners are expert at writing panic into their scripts. “Every two years, the money spent is more than the two years before that, and it just keeps on going that way,” said [Pennsylvania political consultant Neil] Oxman. “It’s an amazing business model. It’s why so many people want to get into it.”
By that, Oxman meant consultants, not candidates, flocking into the business. It’s hard to think of other enterprises with the same levels of money washing through them and such slack regulation.
Corruption is at the core of the problem with the Democratic Party establishment (There is no Democratic Party establishment). It leads to bad candidates and worse campaigns.
In a way, this is more corrupt than what the Republicans do, because even when the ‘Phants hawk colloidal silver, gold coins, dubious nutritional supplements, get rich quick schemes, and mesothelioma ambulance chasers, they know that they are scamming their supporters.
The Democrats, by contrast have managed to convinced themselves that they heroes rescuing hapless candidates that they are actually cheating.
At least the Republicans don’t lie to themselves.