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The Power of Little Money Will Be Tested This Fall

Upstart groups look to oust incumbent Democrats they say are too tied to big donors

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley in a New York primary last month, had the support of anti-big money groups. (Scott Heins/Getty Images file photo)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley in a New York primary last month, had the support of anti-big money groups. (Scott Heins/Getty Images file photo)

Democratic incumbents in Congress may face a future with a political money problem.

No, it’s not that they won’t have enough campaign cash — quite the opposite.

They may have too much of a certain kind.

A pair of upstart, anti-lobbyist, anti-big-political-money groups from the left will be painting those large campaign coffers that Democratic incumbents amass as a bad thing. To defeat them in primaries, they hope to portray those incumbents as too tied to big-money interests.

These groups have their sights right now on several sitting Democratic lawmakers with upcoming primaries. This is likely just the beginning.

Like the Club for Growth did on the conservative side, these groups with roots in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, dubbed Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, seek to “purify” political candidates, in this case of the toxicity of big donors.

The two political action committees, which were once linked and share founders, may fall short in this election cycle, or even go out of business altogether. But no matter: They reveal a deep angst among voters who have grown disaffected in their belief that big checks hold outsize influence over their elected officials.

Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are working against nine-term Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose Missouri primary against Cori Bush takes place Aug. 7.

They’ve come out against freshman Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who is facing off against Chardo Richardson on Aug. 28.

And they’re hoping to topple 10-term Rep. Michael E. Capuano in a Sept. 4 primary with Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

Think it’s an impossible task? Well, they already scored a win when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a primary upset last month over 10-term New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, a member of House leadership.

ICYMI: Which Incumbents Could Follow in Crowley’s Footsteps?

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“We’re looking for a certain kind of candidate, people who better reflect their communities and bring with them the lived experience, a more working-class, diverse people,” said Nasim Thompson, who serves as communications director for Justice Democrats and was previously with Brand New Congress.

Justice Democrats’ candidates, like those backed by Brand New Congress, must shun donations from registered lobbyists and corporate PACs.

“We’re trying to carve out a lane where we can empower candidates where they can compete with these other really big forces that are out there,” Thompson said.

Those big forces will need to be reckoned with though.

Rep. Ro Khanna said Justice Democrats brought Ocasio-Cortez to his attention. The California Democrat endorsed her, but in the other upcoming primaries, he said he’s either staying neutral or endorsing the incumbents from his party. He’s not getting involved in the Florida and Massachusetts races, he said, and called Clay “a great leader” in the congressional black and progressive caucuses.

Khanna, who is drafting a campaign finance overhaul bill, said the emergence of these two groups “shows that politics has changed. … You don’t need the big money influence, what you need is to convince voters that you’re not going to be beholden to big donors and lobbyists.”

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez raised $861,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, while Crowley hauled in $3.9 million during the 2018 election cycle.

Brand New Congress puts a postpartisan slant to its endorsements, though it’s mostly for Democrats. Former Sanders campaign aides and volunteers launched it in 2016, before Donald Trump won the White House.

Justice Democrats emerged after the 2016 election and has sought to harness the power of the Democratic “Resistance” movement.

The two groups had a partnership and shared staff, but are now formally separate, said Zeynab Day of Brand New Congress.

Justice Democrats has raised about $1.8 million this election cycle, and Brand New Congress has brought in about $425,000, mostly from small donations under $200.

Both groups mobilize campaign volunteers and, in some cases, send staff to the districts. They provide help with social media, booklets on how to file Federal Election Commission reports as well as networking among the endorsed candidates.

Day said activists and voters feel frustrated that political stories focus on campaign donations as the benchmark for a viable, successful campaign. “That narrative dismisses the power of the voters,” she added.

At the end of this campaign season, it may be that big money again beats out little dollars.

But even if the new groups’ candidates “don’t win this cycle, they’re going to be a force in progressive politics,” Khanna said.

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