Must Read on How Outside Donors Have Undermined State Political Parties and the Electoral Consequences

This was one of the more fascinating pieces I’ve read on the sources of weakness in modern state parties, how that weakness affects their competitiveness, and the role of non-party, outside donors in that process. We’ve known that the McCain-Feingold law caused enormous damage to state political parties, and it’s unclear what role that law might have played in the background. This story is primarily about outside donor alliances that think they can perform party functions better than the parties. The story is about the decline of the Democratic Party in Florida, written by a long-time Democratic political operative there. The whole story is worth reading.

The story is titled: “Anatomy of a Murder: How the Democratic Party Crashed in Florida.” It appears here. Some excerpts:

When I left the party job in 2009, I genuinely believed we were out of the ditch and on a better path. We’d built our box. We had a foundation. Things were trending in the right direction for Democrats in Florida.

But right about then, a new idea was floated: standing up a donor table—or alliance, if that makes you feel better—that would operate and fund organizations outside of the party.

This move was pitched as a supplement to the work of the state party, which would build a “long-term progressive infrastructure” that could carry on the goals of the Obama operation into the future. My concern was that the alliance would not be an add-on, but instead would end up being a replacement for the party.

Florida Democrats sat at a fork in the road. And the decision they made then led directly to where we are today….

The donor and his advisor had a different idea. Donors didn’t have confidence in the state party, so they wanted to set up a series of outside groups that could be the basis for “long-term progressive infrastructure.”

In a nutshell, the concept they were pitching was was simple. A group of state and national donors and Democratic-supporting organizations would pool their money and decide collectively which groups or candidates they would support, with the goal of electing Democrats and advocating for progressive policies. (It should be said that the favored policies that were often to the left of what a winning Democratic coalition in Florida would accept.) By giving money, donors got a seat at the table, and this table would operate in a manner not dissimilar to Shark Tank: supporting organizations would pitch them; they would make decisions based on these arguments. On its best day, the groups which made up the alliance would all have their own lanes and areas of expertise. That was the plan.

But in addition to reinventing the wheel, we countered, alliance-backed groups wouldn’t be legally allowed to coordinate with the actual candidates, and also there would be no real accountability for the money. Say what you want about the party itself: At least every dollar is disclosed, every decision is public. This was not the case for the alliance….

Elections are determined by lots of inputs. There’s the political and economic environment. The money. The candidates, their stories, and their visions. There are external shocks and events. There’s luck. But there’s also a lot of blocking and tackling, the kind of routine, unglamorous work that political professionals do in order to maximize a campaign’s chances of success.

Unless you’re in a very favorable race, you can’t win if the only thing you have going for you is the blocking and tackling. But by the same token, if you’re in a competitive race, trying to win without that basic blocking and tackling is asking every other factor to break your way.

And while it’s not sexy, these routine mechanics of electioneering—the blocking and tackling of politics—are something Republicans in this state do very well on a year-round basis. This is why we have an overwhelmingly re-elected Ron DeSantis and his Free State of Florida, while my state’s Democratic party is barely hanging on life support.

Outside groups are fine. I ran a national group in 2020 that was created to support Joe Biden. But what happened in Florida is that the outside groups—not the candidates or the party—were designated to be the primary driver of turnout, messaging, and in some cases, even candidate recruitment….

Take one element of this: voter registration. One of the original arguments for the donor alliance in Florida was that it could fund groups with a year-round focus on voter registration. But that has been an abject failure.

Since 2012, partisan voter registration has declined for Democrats in Florida in just about every year, and today, Republicans have a healthy advantage in this metric for the first time in state history. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone: When you outsource voter registration to these legally non-partisan organizations, they can’t engage in partisan organizing. And you know what Democrats need to do with voter registration? Find more Democrats to register….

When political parties are weak, they tend to become feckless and inept. Feckless and inept parties lose elections….

The lesson here ought to be painful for Democrats: We didn’t lose the demographic battle—we lost the partisan organizing and persuasion battles….

I don’t think if Florida Democrats had simply leaned into the 2006-2012 organizing model that my party would be dominating the state today. Some of the national reshuffling in the partisan coalitions over the last 20 years would have hit Florida even harder than most places. 

That said, had we focused on building a more sustainable party organization (as they did in Wisconsin) we would have elected at least one Democratic governor, have at least one Democratic U.S. senator, and would have substantially more Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. Of this I have zero doubt. 

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