Why Are There No Powerful Liberal Super Pacs?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 23 2012 7:30 PM

Save Us, Soros!

Conservative mega-donors are purging the GOP. Why aren’t liberal tycoons doing the same for Democrats?

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Can you have a Club for Socialism without mega-donors? No, it doesn’t look like you can. The recent history of liberal “accountability” campaigns is largely depressing. Focus on three groups that launched or retooled after the 2008 elections—the Accountability Now PAC, the SEIU’s North Carolina First, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. All had grassroots reach. One had union muscle. Two of them are basically dead.

Accountability Now started off strong. Its founders were Jane Hamsher, a pioneering blogger at Firedoglake, and Glenn Greenwald, the legal blogger-turned-author. It was rooted in the tradition of anti-sellout primary challenges—Hamsher had ginned up support for Ned Lamont’s 2006 race against Sen. Joe Lieberman. (Lieberman lost the primary then beat Lamont as the Connecticut for Lieberman independent candidate.) Enemies like Lanny Davis buzzed about the PAC right away.

But nobody donated to it. According to its post-election report from 2010, Accountability Now PAC raised only $77,973.95. And little of that went directly to candidates—it was chewed up by strategists and lawyers.

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“It was really hard in 2010 to convince good progressives to challenge incumbents,” says Greenwald. “They perceived (accurately) that the general election would be an anti-Dem bloodbath, so why take all the huge risks to challenge an establishment-approved candidate?” The PAC did what it could for Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor of Arkansas, who challenged Sen. Blanche Lincoln from the left. He lost. “After that election, Jane and I both realized that even if Halter had won, it wouldn't have changed anything. He would have just blended into the Dem Party woodwork, would have been just another annoying centrist (like Ned Lamont would have been), and he would have been tied around our neck.”

North Carolina First didn’t even get that far. It was supposed to be a third party, set up by the SEIU and allied unions to run candidates against Democrats who voted against health care. It petered out before the midterms. But the PCCC has endured. It gathers potential donor names with frequent petition drives. (“Pass a new Glass-Steagall!”) It endorses early.

It doesn’t have all that much money. The PCCC raised $300,000 for the ill-fated Halter campaign. That’s $200,000 less than the one check Sheldon Adelson cut for Scott Walker’s recall defense campaign. Together with Democracy for America (founded by Howard Dean before he ruled the Democratic National Committee), it spent $2 million on Wisconsin campaign ads. Again, that is still less than a handful of Walker donors were able to chip in—and less than half as much money as sits in the pro-Newt Gingrich Winning Our Future super PAC.

There are activists who fret about this, and there are activists who settle. A few veterans of the labor movement explained that the makeup of the Democratic Party, and the makeup of the country, simply doesn’t allow for many progressive “accountability” campaigns. Stubborn Gallup polls tell them that “conservatives” outnumber “liberals” by a 2-to-1 ratio. If labor unions wanted to fund more super PACs, they’d be limited by the fact that their membership includes scores of conservatives. “They are too concerned about their decline to challenge the party,” argues labor veteran Rich Yeselson.

Some liberal tycoons could fix that. Decades ago, they figured this out. In 1968, before the campaign finance reforms that (temporarily) made this impossible, a small group of mega-donors funded most of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. The Democratic Party’s official position on Vietnam was changed for good. Today’s conservative mega-donors have merely reverse-engineered the strategy. But only six short years after they beat Lieberman with Ned Lamont, progressives can’t convince the new tycoons to sign up again.

“We had so many Democrats undermine us that year,” remembers Lamont’s campaign manager, an old labor hand named Tom Swan. “I think the right understood the Lamont-Lieberman primary better than progressives did.”