Can 2018’s progressive candidates overcome the power of money in politics?

Could the connections new, grassroots-supported progressive candidates make with voters become as important as the dollars they raise?

Can 2018’s progressive candidates overcome the power of money in politics?
[Photo: courtesy Ocasio 2018]

On June 15, the two Democratic candidates in the running for the seat in New York’s 14th Congressional district faced off in a debate. The optics were striking. Joe Crowley is 56 years old, and he’s served in Congress for 19 years, starting off in a seat to which he was appointed to, He’s a white man representing a district that is just 18% white, and while he supports some progressive policies like immigration reform and Medicare for All, his funders include big banks and energy utilities. He’s the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House. His challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is 28 years old, and she grew up in the Bronx. She organized for Bernie Sanders and protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. This is her first political campaign, and she’s running on a platform of universal healthcare, free public college, and the abolition of ICE.


They face off in a vote in the Democratic primary in New York on June 26. It’s a race that mirrors many happening across the country this year, as progressive candidates–many of them running their first-ever campaigns–attempt to challenge more established Democrats.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [Photo: courtesy Ocasio 2018]

Ocasio-Cortez, like many progressive candidates, knows her campaign is a long shot. “I knew I was going into one of the most machine-controlled races in the United States, and I knew going into it that this whole deck was going to be stacked against me,” she tells Fast Company. “So from the very beginning, I decided I wasn’t going to use that deck.” Not using that deck, to her, means refusing corporate money, and instead relying on a base of small individual donations from constituents to fuel her campaign. People who have volunteered for her campaign have remarked on the energy around it, and Ocasio-Cortez has secured endorsements from MoveOn, Black Lives Matter, and a number of left-progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution committed to getting progressive candidates powered by grassroots donations, not corporate money, into office. Our Revolution has endorsed a broad range of candidates, from governor to city council and 38 so far have won; Justice Democrats is focused on Congress and endorsed 48 House and Senate candidates; 13 so far have won the nomination for the November election.

In the 14th district, Crowley is heavily favored to win if you look at the most salient metric in American politics: the money (incumbency helps a lot, as well). Crowley has raised millions of dollars; the Blackstone Group and Consolidated Edison number among his 1,312 donors. Ocasio-Cortez has raised just over $550,000.

In the 2014 midterms, the better funded candidate won the seat 91% of the time. It’s funding, after all, that allows campaigns to advertise and to reach constituents, and in a year when the Democratic Party’s main aim is to regain a majority in Congress, it makes sense to focus on candidates who can run powerful, well-funded campaigns against Republican challengers in the November elections.

But this year, spurred in large part by Donald Trump’s election, a wealth of Democratic candidates–1,192, to be precise–registered to run primary campaigns in districts across the country. Some districts have seen pools filled with as many as seven left-wing candidates. A number of those candidates, mostly first-timers, are running on extremely progressive platforms, and others toe a more moderate line. As the Democratic Party aims to support the candidates it sees as the most likely to win in November, in this year’s primaries, it’s largely been backing more established, centrist candidates–and especially those with more funds. But some progressives feel that this approach is keeping them locked out of advancing to the November elections by default, and keeping the Democratic Party out of touch with its voting base. As the primaries evolve into the 2018 Midterms, the Democratic Party should consider how it might evolve to support a greater diversity of candidates–including those that are running small-dollar campaigns and finding successes who, like Ocasio-Cortez says, are using a different but potentially compelling deck.

[Photo: courtesy Ocasio 2018]

A disconnected party

For the Democratic party, there’s a special urgency this year to ensure that whichever candidate makes it through the primary can win against the Republican nominee in November to ensure a Congress that can work against Trump’s policies.


As such, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the House Democrats whose purpose it is to help Democrats win House seats, has selected several candidates this year in competitive primaries on the left to help support through a combination of funding and consulting support. Candidates with backing from the DCCC not only receive funding of at least $1,000 (and often much more)–they also gain access to the organization’s network of consultants for strategic support throughout their campaign.

In Texas’s 7th district, for instance, the DCCC attempted to pull some strings on behalf of Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in a race over the  more liberal, Medicare-For-All candidate Laura Moser, and backed Republican-turned-Democrat Brad Ashford over progressive Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd district. Ann Kirkpatrick, a centrist Democrat in Arizona’s 2nd district who opposes Medicare for All and, during a previous turn in Congress, voted to extend tax cuts for corporations, was one of the first candidates the DCCC publicly supported this election cycle, over the more progressive Mary Matiella, who ran on raising the minimum wage and supporting universal healthcare (they face off on August 28th).

In a now widely circulated bit of audio that Levi Tillemann, a progressive running for Congress in Colorado in the June 26th primary, recorded during a meeting with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the issue of the DCCC’s involvement in Tillemann’s face-off with his primary rival, corporate lawyer Jason Crow, came up. Hoyer explained to Tillemann that the party and the DCCC were backing Crow because the current Colorado members of the House selected him as the preferred nominee.

“So your position is, a decision was made very early on before voters had a say, and that’s fine because the DCCC knows better than the voters of the 6th Congressional District, and we should line up behind that candidate,” Tillemann said in response (The Intercept secured a copy of the audio and reported on it).

“That’s certainly a consequence of our decision,” was what Hoyer had to say in response. And that decision was likely made on the basis of fundraising prowess. The DCCC is reported to carry out a practice called “rolodexing,” in which it assesses a candidate’s viability by her ability to raise at least $250,000 from the contacts in their phone alone.

Jess Phoenix [Photo: Belle & Epic Photography]

An election for the people

For progressive candidates–especially first-timers, and those who are refusing to accept corporate dollars–that initial $250,000 bar would be a near-impossible one to clear. And yet, such candidates are not automatic write-offs—nor should they be. In Nebraska’s 2nd district, for instance, the progressive Eastman won the Democratic nomination despite refusing corporate money and being outraised by her primary opponent, the DCCC-endorsed Ashford. In Texas’ 7th district outside of Houston, the race between Fletcher and Moser went to a runoff. Two progressive candidates ran to take on left-centrist John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, and instead of splitting the vote, one of them, Susan Wild, won.


Is there something helping these progressive candidates gain momentum despite not quite fitting the DCCC’s definition of successful? The candidates would argue yes. The party, they feel, is overlooking a key metric: the number of constituents these candidates have mobilized to donate to their campaigns. While the total funding pool these contributions amount to may be small–barely even crossing that initial $250,000 threshold in some cases–the sheer number of individuals those contributions come from, in many cases, surpass the number that bigger-dollar candidates post. That indicates a broader voting base, and that, some progressive candidates feel, should get more attention from the party. (The value of this metric extends beyond assessing progressive candidates: Centrist Conor Lamb won a razor-edge victory over his Republican opponent in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district in March, raising over $3 million on an average contribution of $33. And in the 2016 election, Donald Trump had enormous success with small-dollar donors.)

Jess Phoenix, a volcano scientist who made an ultimately unsuccessful run for the nomination in California’s 25th district, built her campaign on grassroots donations; she did not accept corporate dollars for her campaign. As someone who has been through the political process, she believes that the party needs to adjust its framework for whom it decides to support in the primaries, and especially how it advises first-time candidates. Phoenix ultimately lost not to the corporate lawyer Brian Caforio, whom the DCCC backed in an unsuccessful run in 2016, but to another grassroots candidate, Katie Hill. Phoenix thinks the energy around her and Hill’s campaigns during the primary should send a signal to the party that voters are looking for something different in their candidates.

[Photo: Jess Phoenix 2018]

“Right now, we’re essentially sending professional fundraisers to Congress and wondering why nothing gets done,” Phoenix says. “There are people from all sorts of backgrounds–teachers, service-sector workers, single parents–whose perspectives would be great to have in Congress because they could speak for people like them,” she adds. “But the way our politics is currently structured, we’re never going to hear their voices.” Altering the metric by which the Democratic Party assesses the popularity of candidates could help get more diverse representatives into office. If the party looked at the number of individual campaign donors, rather than the sheer volume of money raised, it could get a clearer sense of how a candidate is relating to her constituents and will ultimately perform in the district, according to Erin Hill, the executive director of ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for progressives and Democrats.

Ocasio-Cortez feels similarly: While Crowley has outraised her by around $2.5 million, she has over 13,500 individual donors. He has just over 1,000; small individual contributions account for 0.79% of his overall campaign money (because candidates are not required to disclose information about donations less than $200, these numbers are often hard to come by; Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign disclosed them to Fast Company). As it currently stands, the party has no stake in recognizing or supporting her campaign because Crowley, with his established position in Congress and deep pockets, is likely a shoo-in. But she feels that there needs to be a way to create a more level playing field, so that if a long-shot candidate decide to run and, like herself, meet a surprising level of support from the community, she won’t be ignored by the party. “You need money to run a campaign, but the money alone is not going to get the community to love you and know you,” she says.

The hope is that the DCCC could grow to recognize more diverse indicators for a candidates’ strength, and either broaden its support for candidates in the primaries, or conserve its resources for the general election and throw its $162 million weight behind whichever candidate the people vote through in the primaries.

[Photo: courtesy Ocasio 2018]

Toward a more even playing field

The Democratic Party leadership maintains that supporting moderate candidates with deep pockets is the clearest path to victory. But Corbin Trent, a Justice Democrats cofounder, says that “the Democratic Party has lost the connection to American working families and to the people in this country.” That connection frays when individuals feel that their vote or campaign contribution is not powerful enough to get their candidate elected or get their issues passed. The spate of progressive candidates running this year may not have large campaign funds, but they are running on policies like Medicare for All, which public polling shows the majority of registered Democrats support, and free public education, which would benefit the low-income and working-class constituents the party has consistently struggled to reach.


Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Phoenix believe that shifting to a political system that prioritizes individual campaign contributions over corporate dollars will help re-establish that lost connection. For the party to remain relevant, Ocasio-Cortez says, it needs candidates who do not accept money from institutions like fossil fuel, pharmaceutical giants, and Wall Street. Of course, this is part of a much larger conversation around the need to re-establish a limit on donations from corporations and nonprofits set up to funnel money toward candidates, but the fact that progressive candidates (and established Democrats like Kristin Gillibrand and Cory Booker) are eschewing corporate money shows that there’s momentum in the party to reimagine how campaigns are funded.

Furthermore, when constituents–particularly young people–feel overshadowed by large corporate donors and the party recognition they bring with them, they are less likely to vote and engage politically. Candidates who instead run small-donor-powered campaigns give their constituents a direct avenue to impact and also, Ocasio-Cortez says, create a wide political base for themselves that is able to give to the campaign multiple times.

While the party’s concerns about a progressive, small-donor-funded candidates ability to amass the resources to contend in the November elections are valid, they should be a reason to figure out new ways to support these candidates in larger elections, rather than a reason to stymie their campaigns in the primaries. One nonprofit, Swing Left, is already setting up the infrastructure to address this issue. Rather than backing particular candidates in the primaries, Swing Left amasses small individual donations into what it calls “district funds” during the primaries and then distributes them–in lump sums as much as $1 million–to the eventual nominees against Republican candidates. “It’s hacking campaign finance,” says founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill.

This is a transition year for the left wing of American politics. While the Democratic Party, understandably, is rattled by the outcome of the 2016 election, it’s doing little differently in choosing candidates than it has in previous elections. But all signs indicate there is an appetite on the left for something different: In the remaining primaries, which include Missouri, Kansas, Washington State, and Arizona, around 30 progressive candidates, including Matiella in Arizona’s 2nd district, will face off to potentially join those who have already secured seats in the November election, including Eastman in Nebraska and Lisa Ring in Georgia’s 1st district, who won in a landslide on a progressive campaign in a deep red part of the state. Whether that appetite is enough to overcome the traditional metrics remains to be seen.

It may be too late this year for the party to shift how it responds to the wave of progressivism coming up from its grassroots, but they will feel it eventually: Even if candidates like Ocasio-Cortez do not win the nomination, their runs for Congress are having an effect: Crowley, for instance, signed on to support a Medicare for All bill after she registered as a challenger.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.