Liberals embrace super PACs they once shunned
Progressives are embracing super PACs with newfound vigor as they look to put their political influence and organizing tactics to use in the aftermath of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.
A handful of new liberal outside groups have cropped up in recent weeks, many of them founded by former aides and allies of Sanders and other prominent progressives. Their goals range from boosting the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden to patching what they see as electoral holes in the Democrats’ organizing strategy.
But the proliferation of super PACs has come at a cost for some in the progressive movement, which has long denounced the existence of such groups and the influence of money in politics.
Sanders himself has privately expressed frustration with one such super PAC, originally called Future to Believe In PAC after the Vermont senator’s campaign slogan. The group was formed late last month by a handful of former aides to Sanders’s campaign, including senior adviser Jeff Weaver, to boost Biden among progressives.
Sanders’s displeasure with the formation of the super PAC prompted its founders to change its name this week to America’s Promise PAC to avoid the appearance that it is tied to Sanders or his campaign.
For Weaver and others, the decision to form a super PAC appears to stem more from a sense of urgency than a genuine comfort with such groups, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money so long as they do not coordinate with a candidate or campaign.
In a memo issued on Friday, Weaver warned that lagging support and enthusiasm for Biden’s candidacy among progressives has the potential to sink the former vice president’s chances of ousting President Trump in November. America’s Promise PAC, he wrote, could help Biden “make up that ground.”
“[D]espite best intentions, the Biden campaign and the [Democratic National Committee] are far behind on digital organizing, Latino outreach and progressive coalition building – all critical to reaching and winning over Sanders supporters,” Weaver wrote.
Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Sanders who is involved in America’s Promise PAC and is spearheading the creation of another group, Nuestro PAC, said that super PACs are simply a means to an end: helping Democrats and progressives win up and down the ballot.
Unlike traditional political action committees and political nonprofits, super PACs can act as a “partisan hammer,” Rocha said, a role that traditional campaigns and PACs can’t necessarily fill.
“I am anti all this money in politics and if we can operate without super PACs, I would vote for that everyday,” Rocha told The Hill. “But I’ve got to do something right now. I don’t have the privilege to be able to wait around until there aren’t super PACs on either side.”
Rocha and his political consulting firm Solidarity Strategies launched Nuestro PAC last month to turn out Latino voters in the fall using the same playbook that helped Sanders win broad support among Latinos during his primary campaign. Rocha himself is currently the largest donor to the super PAC. He said that he’s courting other progressive and Democratic-leaning groups to help fund the effort.
Rocha said he won’t accept contributions from corporate interests or business executives.
“Super PACs aren’t the problem. The problem is corporate money in super PACs,” he said. “I don’t know any corporations who would give Chuck Rocha or Nuestro Pac any donations anyway.”
Still, the move towards super PACs has received blowback from some progressives. Rocha said he has lost thousands of followers on Twitter since started Nuestro PAC last month. And after America’s Promise launched in late April, the grassroots collective The People for Bernie Sanders advised its followers: “Don’t give them a dime.”
“One of the basics of the Bernie campaigns was a refusal to go there in terms of anything like a super PAC,” Norman Solomon, a longtime activist and the co-founder of the progressive online initiative RootsAction.org.
“I think that’s in harmony with the politics – that if you’re opposed to huge money running the political show then you don’t take huge money in super PACs.”
Solomon is among a group of advisers to the newly-formed Once Again PAC, a traditional political action committee focused on helping Sanders win delegates in upcoming Democratic presidential primaries in order to exert influence over the party’s platform and rules at its national convention this summer.
Also involved in that effort is Nina Turner, a former co-chair of Sanders’s presidential campaign, and Winnie Wong, a former adviser to Sanders.
While Solomon said that most activists on the left “share Bernie’s detest for super PACs in general,” he also emphasized that progressive super PACs are “a relatively small part of the terrain,” especially given the massive outside groups funded by ultra-wealthy donors that often back Republicans or more centrist Democrats.
“It’s David vs. Goliath,” he said. “Even David needed a slingshot and I think that’s how some people see it.”
Sanders’s former aides aren’t the only ones forming outside political groups. Earlier this month, Justice Democrats, the progressive group aligned with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), filed paperwork with the Federal Election Committee (FEC) to create a hybrid PAC – also called a Carey Committee – similar to a super PAC.
Sanders himself has benefited from super PACs in the past. Vote Nurses Values PAC, the super PAC funded by the nurses union National Nurses United, spent more than $700,000 in support of the Vermont senator during the 2020 presidential primaries.
“To me, there’s a big difference between a labor lobbyist who is an advocate for working people versus a corporate lobbyist for Goldman Sachs or General Electric,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former surrogate for Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I sort of see super PACs the same way.”
Tasini said that the end goal for Democrats should be “to get rid of all this money” in the U.S. political system. But he added that progressives should be practical in their approach to super PACs.
“I don’t think we should be so ideologically rigid about this,” he said. “Everyone would love to get rid of all this money. But that isn’t the reality today.”
One of the draws of super PACs – in addition to being allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums of money – is that they promise political operatives freedom that they often don’t get within the rigid and bureaucratic structure of traditional campaigns, said Linh Nguyen, a former presidential campaign staffer for Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Nguyen and other former campaign staffers filed paperwork with the FEC late last month creating PAC That A$$ (PTA), a super PAC aimed at boosting Democrats up and down the ballot, while aggressively mocking GOP incumbents. The group isn’t tied directly to the progressive movement, but is “very much anchored in the idea that we are trying to fix the system,” Nguyen said.
In an interview this week, Nguyen said the group isn’t only going to be run by political operatives, but is also hiring writers and comedians – particularly black and brown creatives – with the goal of reaching young voters and communities of color online ahead of the 2020 election.
“Our donors that are funding this have specifically said we want you all to try different things,” Nguyen said. “Experiment and figure out how to break through the noise.”
Nguyen said that PTA is built around the notion that super PACs are detrimental to the political process. The group’s website touts that if their efforts to get Democrats elected are successful, “there won’t be any more Super PACs.”
“We want to fight fire with fire. This is something that Republicans are very, very comfortable in, and as Democrats, we shy away from it or we take the higher road,” she said. “We want to lean into it. We’re going to get a lot of criticism, but we don’t want to shy away from it.”