Money Isn’t Everything, Even in Politics

published in Medium in October ‘18 by Mary Shannon Little (former federal prosecutor and Fight advisory board member)

Money can’t buy you love, and it also can’t win an election. Sure, it helps pay for media ads and consultants, but leveraging small amounts to teach campaigns how to engage voters may be a better investment.

That’s the bet some Democrats in hotly contested California Congressional races have made. Democrats running in the seven most competitive California districts have raised five times more money than their opponents, but they are still relying low budget tactics like town hall meetings and door-to-door canvassing. They want their election-year grassroots efforts to sprout into year-round voter engagement.

Fight for a Better America, an independent political action committee, has doubled-down on this less-can-be-more strategy, by providing targeted financial and consultative support in five of these hotly contested races. Fight, as they call themselves, was created weeks after the 2016 election by Bill Kuhn, a Wall Street banker turned high school teacher, based in New York, and John Newsome, a former political staffer turned management consultant, based in New York and San Francisco. They get their financial support from a network of friends and colleagues. And people like me.

I live in New York City. Why would I care about California Congressional races? I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, when the state was so small it had one Congressman. My father, an IRS agent, attended Senator Howard Cannon’s town halls like they were holy days of obligation. My mother, a nurse, sought then Lt. Gov. Harry Reid’s advice about what to do when she was fired by her employer. Politics was personal to me and my family.

I wanted to do something to make politics personal again. When I learned about Fight’s philosophy, I gave them as much as I could afford and now serve on its advisory board.

Right Places; Right Partners; Right Tactics is their motto. Applying a venture philanthropy model to political fundraising, they give relatively small donations — seed funding and growth capital, in venture terms — to grassroots political organizations poised to generate strong results.

A prime example of Right Place is California 49, where 9-term Congressman Darrell Issa (R-San Diego) faced little electoral challenge until 2016, when he won by less than 2,000 votes. Clearly, the voters in this district were hungry for political discourse. That’s why Fight chose California 49 as its testing ground.

The Right Partner was Flip the 49th, a grass-roots voter engagement coalition of over 60 labor and political groups. Flip the 49th didn’t wait for a Democratic front-runner to emerge before initiating an intensive voter engagement program. They wanted to turn outrage over Trump into action, like door-to-door canvassing and weekly protests at Issa’s local offices. Political pundits credit Flip the 49th’s early activism with compelling Issa to step down, and with raising Democratic turnout in the primary. But before Flip the 49th could succeed, it needed seed funding. Fight pledged $50K.

“We had a vision and a strategy that was outside the box, and there was no obvious source of funding, which was a roadblock to move forward,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, Flip the 49th’s co-founder and former Obama administration advisor. “And then I met John and Bill and we had a meeting of the minds. Fight provided us with the catalytic capital we needed to start us on our way.”

I was particularly attracted to Fight’s tech-savvy Right Tactics. They look for partners, like Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community arm, and Stand-Up OC, an Orange County-based voter engagement group, who wanted to make face-to-face canvassing more effective by using data to determine who to approach.

Fight’s promotion of data-driven voter targeting is like watching a VC firm introduce robotics to a flagging factory. The quality and quantity of voter outreach improves immediately, especially for sprouting grassroots groups unable to afford data tools.

Fight spends more time in the field with its partners than raising money from donors. It is a David in the Goliath world of political spending. But the success of its pilot efforts prove that money isn’t everything in politics. And they give people like me, who want to make a real difference, a cost-effective way of doing so.