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?

George Soros.
Earlier this month, billionaire George Soros made his first 2012 political donations—$1 million each to America Votes and American Bridge 21st Century

Photograph by Johannes Simon/Getty Images.

Republican Thomas Massie has a terrific shot at winning a seat in Congress. He’s an outsider—only one little local victory on the resume—in a year when that’s still popular. His district, Kentucky’s fourth, is a cluster of coal counties and rich suburbs that’s started to go solidly GOP. By primary day, May 22, Massie had slightly outspent his two strongest opponents. And he won, by 45 percent to 29 percent over a highly-touted state senator.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

But the losers say the game was fixed. In the final stretch, Kentucky voters saw more than $500,000 of ads from Liberty for All, a new conservative super PAC funded entirely by a 21-year-old Texan heir to a real estate fortune. The heir, John Ramsey, did not mind the attention. “We want to take the front lines,” he told Mother Jones last week. “We want to be the front-line PAC that takes the weight of the freedom movement on our shoulder.”

In our post-Citizens United lives, the whims of a millionaire or billionaire can transform an election. Just this month, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts’s Ending Spending PAC bet more than $250,000 on Nebraska U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer. She won her primary. In Indiana, the Club for Growth bundled $330,000 and spent $1.45 million to help Richard Mourdock eliminate U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. Two out of every five independent dollars in the Indiana race came from the Club. Mourdock won, too. If you’re a conservative Republican, and you convince wealthy donors that you can take out a moderate, you can count on a super PAC to come and save you.

Advertisement

And what if you’re a liberal who wants to primary a wimpy Democrat? Not as easy. Imagine if a liberal billionaire wanted to seed some PAC—call it the “Club for Socialism,” maybe—and hunt for prey. Maybe he could buy into Hawaii’s U.S. Senate primary between the progressive Rep. Mazie Hirono and the pro-Iraq War former Rep. Ed Case. Maybe California, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein—an icon of liberal betrayal ever since she was serving with Harvey Milk—had $4.7 million lifted from her war chest by a con artist.

But there’s no big liberal money available for that. Progressive tycoons exist, but they are reluctant even to give to President Obama’s network. They’re not interested in purifying the Democratic Party.

It’s a little hard to tell what they are interested in. Two months ago, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis left the Democracy Alliance, a lefty donor coalition.  Earlier this month, billionaire George Soros made his first 2012 political donations—$1 million each to America Votes and American Bridge 21st Century. That’s $23.5 million less than he gave to liberal groups in 2004. According to David McKay, chairman of the Democracy Alliance and board member of the Priorities USA super PAC, most big liberal money is going toward grassroots organizing. “There’s a bias towards funding infrastructure as it relates to the elections,” he told the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore.

Why no money to change the Democratic Party itself? The big guys aren’t interested, and don’t think it’s possible. “The reason there's not a Club for Growth-like organization on the left,” says Soros spokesman Michael Vachon, “is that there is a greater diversity of views in the Democratic Party than there is in the Republican Party. There's less of a hierarchically enforced ideological structure.”

You can explain some of this with ideology. Conservatives and libertarians have no philosophical beef with Citizens United. More money in politics? You might as well say “more freedom.”  That is not how the liberal mega-donors think. “He finds it offensive to denigrate opponents,” says Jennifer Frutchy, an advisor to Peter Lewis for 25 years. “That's not how he wants to spend his fortune—in an arms race, taking down opponents. He doesn't want to be part of the negativity or corrupting influence money can have on the electoral process.”

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.