When $4 Billion Isn't Enough, It's Time to Rethink Our Elections

Ten months ago, we started LaunchProgress PAC with a simple question -- is there a better way to invest in candidates to achieve progressive policy?

The dust from the 2014 election is still settling, but at over $4 billion spent on the midterm elections, this campaign season was record breaking. And with the average American household earning $53,046 a year, regular citizens cannot participate in elections. As a result, we have seen Congress unable to advance critical progressive policy like desperately needed unemployment insurance, immigration reform, environmental protections, or protections for women serving in the military. After last night's elections, these progressive ideals will rarely be mentioned in the Halls of Congress.


So, how do we support basic progressive values? At billions of dollars, another money bomb in a federal race is just a drop in the bucket. Instead, we decided to go to the bottom, where new candidates typically enter public service for the first time.

Our model flips the equation on its head. Given the state of campaign finance, statewide and federal races are saturated in spending (and local news stations are reaping the profits). They're overpriced for having impact. With billionaires like Tom Steyer struggling to make impacts through massive cash expenditures, it's not clear it would make much difference if we joined the fray and added more cash to these races. However, there is a vast amount of opportunity in entry-level races--races where candidates are running for the first time. Generally, candidates here are inexperienced, lack large professional networks, and--critically--Super PACs are not active (this is for a number of reasons, but one is that many states actually have much stronger and more progressive campaign finance rules than federal races do).

At LaunchProgress, we proposed that by finding progressive champions, by focusing on districts underinvesting in young candidates, and by providing intensive, focused support in a candidates' first, local election, we could have a much greater impact on our communities and our country's future than if we were to compete at the federal level.

A race for State Representative or State Senate typically costs less than $250,000 and, in many states, can often be run effectively with $20,000-$30,000. That means that for the cost of the 2014 U.S. Senate election in North Carolina -- over $100 million this year -- we could fund anywhere from 400 to 4,000 state legislature races. Imagine the potential impact on progressive values if, instead of running a candidate like Ed Fitzgerald in Ohio for governor, we had 30 strongly qualified, strongly progressive candidates working in lower offices ready to step up to run for governor (Note: Ed Fitzgerald lost his race by 31 points.)

But the type of candidate to invest in is key to make this investment have a long-term return. LaunchProgress PAC looks for:

  • 1) Progressive Champions--people who care about, believe in, and will champion core progressive values. It's impossible to know what issues will be making headlines ten years out, but finding people with the right values is crucial to ensure you'll have someone who actually wants to defend your civil rights, support civic engagement and voting rights, protect the environment, fight for economic justice, care about education reform, and believe in health care justice.
  • 2) Location--Investment in long-term capacity building needs to have the highest impact potential, so we researched areas where conservatives have electorally overperformed (the elections they are winning are more than what the voting demographic represents). Investing in these areas means growing a progressive base and having more impactful policy outcomes when you flip legislative chambers from conservative to progressive. We focused on Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina.
  • 3) Millennials and non-traditional candidates--Millennials are the greatest source of untapped potential in the progressive movement. Both the largest generation in America as well as an increasingly progressive generation, Millennials, if effectively mobilized, will dictate the future of our country. Further, Millennials are the most diverse generation, and with the extreme lack of representation of most communities in our legislatures, we must strategically and intentionally target candidates from non-traditional backgrounds to run for office.

We took this approach and endorsed ten candidates in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina running for the first time for State Representative or State Senate. We focused on limited financial contributions and heavy campaign mentoring, leveraging a pool of talented individuals who volunteered strategic advice, campaign best practices, policy work, and field help. We helped the campaign teams with name recognition and branding through a robust regional and national communications outreach, helping our candidates get some of their first, and at times only, national press coverage. The week before the election, we made thousands of calls with volunteer phonebanks. Finally, throughout the campaign, we strategically gave out financial donations when the campaigns needed them.

First time candidates, particularly young ones, have a tremendously low success rate. With our model of providing monetary and professional support, five of our 10 candidates won this cycle. With nine candidates who advanced to the November election, our 56 percent Election Day success rate places us among the top of other campaign organizations. Here's the kicker, after all was said and done, we only spent an average of $1,000 per candidate in direct campaign donations. That means if you took just 0.2 percent of the money spent on the federal races this year, you could apply our model to every single state legislative race in the country.

We must invest in long-term, sustainable capacity building in order to achieve progressive wins now and in the future. We've shown it can be done. As progressives, our investment isn't about winning a single race but electing a person who will grow to become a strong campaigner and elected official who will run for statewide or federal office as they rise. This isn't about 2014, this is about the statewide wins in 2018, redistricting in 2020, and an era of progressive values that preserve an American society where justice, equality, and respect are at the forefront of our politics.

Luke Squire is the co-founder of LaunchProgress Political Action Committee, a state-based PAC that supports young progressives running for state and local office.

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