Flowers has made a name for himself as Greene’s chief adversary. His flashy announcement video in March 20201 was retweeted more than 32,000 times and his campaign coffers have been filled by online donors eager to oust Greene. To date, Flowers, despite having no previous political experience, has raised more than $ 7 million, including a whopping $ 2.4 million in the first three months of the year. His haul for the cycle is far more than many well-established incumbents, including Greene, who he has outraised for multiple quarters.
The only issue: No amount of money can give him a realistic chance of winning.
His would-be northwest Georgia district, one of the reddest in the country, voted for Donald Trump
over Joe Biden
by 48 points in 2020 under the current lines, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t have the contest as one of the roughly 70 it is tracking.
This is not a new problem for Democrats. In 2018, then-Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
raised more than $ 80 million in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a contest he lost by nearly 3 points
. The issue was far more dramatic in 2020: Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath
raised more than $ 90 million in her attempt to defeat Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, only to lose by nearly 20 points
. And Democrat Jaime Harrison
raised an astonishing $ 130 million against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham
of South Carolina, only to lose by 10 points
Democrats are concerned this pattern could repeat itself in 2022. Florida Rep. Val Demings
, for example, is already raising big money in her effort to unseat Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, even as many Democrats think she has only a sliver of a chance.
“We get so caught up on the super villains that we don’t focus on the villains,” said Lauren Harper, the co-founder of Welcome PAC, a group that has tracked this pattern and works to expand the reach of the Democratic Party.
‘Disappointing’ but ‘predictable’
Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats at the state legislative level, was elated when her organization raised $ 51 million in 2020, especially considering state legislatures would be central to the redistricting process.
But after Democrats were unable to flip any state legislative chambers in a scattershot year, Post’s haul looked dramatically different — especially considering candidates such as McGrath and Harrison had raised so much money and didn’t even come close to defeating their opponents.
“I certainly get the instinct to give to the opponent of a Republican bogeyman or bogeywoman. It is just not a strategic contribution,” said Post, referring to McGrath’s haul as “infamous.”
“While disappointing, it is predictable,” she added.
Post said that there is plenty of blame to go around and that this trend has as much to do with donors knowing — and loathing — someone like McConnell as it does with the party not prioritizing down-ballot races.
“Our Democratic donors invest like activists, and I think Republicans invest like strategic business leaders,” she said. But there remain “strategic party investors that haven’t connected the dots about winning at the state legislative level.”
“The party has not focused adequately on the states, and we, for a long time, had this philosophy that if we gave at the top of the ticket … that the people on the bottom of the ballot would just rise up,” she added. “We know that is simply not true.”
The McGrath and Harrison campaigns led to the popularization of a new political term: rage-donating, the practice of donors, primarily in anger at the opposing party, donating to candidates with little chance of winning.
“Sometimes, this money goes to a great campaign or organization that will use it well,” Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, wrote about the practice
. “Other times, not so much.”
James Carville, the longtime Democratic consultant who often pens fundraising emails sent by different committees, put a finer point on it in a recent interview with Vox
“Just look at how Democrats organize and spend money. For Christ’s sake,” Carville said specifically about the Harrison and McGrath races. “They were always going to lose those races, but Democrats keep doing this stupid s—. … We’re addicted to hopeless causes.”
Respecting Democratic donors
Many Democrats argue it is unfair to criticize the way their donors choose to give — they are the ones with the money, and they can give to whomever excites them.
“These aren’t decisions being made by a cabal of folks smoking cigars in DC,” said Dan Kanninen, head of Arc Initiatives, a Democratic consulting firm, and McGrath’s 2020 campaign manager. “These are candidates and campaigns engaging voters and donors. At a base level, you have to respect what donors are willing to do, especially small-dollar donors.”
Kanninen added: “There are going to be inefficiencies in a big tent party. That is a choice we make as Democrats. Engagement is a good thing broadly. These investments can be totally additive to other fundraising, and lead to important party building. I don’t think it’s a choice we need to worry too much about.”
Key to this online giving — both large and small — is ActBlue
, the Democratic donating platform that has turned into the engine room of the party’s fundraising dominance. The platform makes it easy for a donor to see a flashy video on Twitter and swiftly hit the donate button or lament about a Republican victory and donate to their favorite candidate right away.
A spokesperson for Act Blue rejected the idea that the way Democratic donors give is a problem for the party.
“To say that small-dollar donors are only giving out of ‘rage,’ with no sense of strategy, is shortsighted and not a charge leveled at high-dollar donors,” the spokesperson said.
But Republicans have watched this trend and cheered.
“The Kentucky race alone probably saved at least two Senate races” for Republicans in 2020, Josh Holmes, a top adviser to McConnell, said of Democrats’ inability to win control of the Senate before the Georgia runoffs in January 2021
. “Misdirected funds on the Democratic side down the stretch definitely contributed to them coming up short.”
And Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN that committeee Chaiman Rick Scott has begun using the 2020 races as a way to fire up Republican incumbents, urging them to “prepare as if you are Lindsey Graham” and “run against Jaime Harrison.