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.

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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.”

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.

“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.”

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