How Your Political Donations Can Actually Make a Difference in This Year’s Midterms

It’s the down ballot races, the battles for state legislatures around the country, where your dollar can really make a difference.
It’s the down ballot races, the battles for state legislatures around the country, where your dollar can really make a difference. Pixabay

It’s just two weeks out from the midterms, and based on predictions and our own unscientific ambient enthusiasm detectors, it looks like it might be one of the most engaged non-presidential voting days in decades. In states around the country, record numbers of people—at least five million so far—have voted early.

“It’s probably going to be a turnout rate that most people have never experienced in their lives for a midterm election,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and expert on voting rates, said last week.

Much of that enthusiasm, or dread depending on who you talk to, is owed to a number of high profile races: the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial elections and the Texas Senate race in particular, where Beto O’Rourke has broken records for fundraising in Texas with over $38 million. In fact, fundraising overall has skyrocketed this time out, with Democrats raising over $1 billion to Republicans’ $700 million.

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Everyone loves a winner, or at least someone who looks like they could be in the case of O’Rourke and other burgeoning stars. But when it comes to wisely allocating your political donations, tossing money at big ticket races may not be the most efficient move, people behind a surging fundraising effort say.

Instead, it’s the down ballot races, the battles for state legislatures around the country, where your dollar can really make a difference says Sean McElwee, co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress and the recent Give Smart campaign.

Launched two weeks ago, the fundraising effort, aligned with nonprofit fundraising platform ActBlue, has pinpointed a series of crucial state races where your money is sorely needed. Since then, they’ve raised nearly $700,000 for 30 candidates.

“We raised $580,000. That is a rounding error to Beto O’Rourke,” McElwee, perhaps best known for his role in jumpstarting the #abolishICE movement, said. The Give Smart organizers originally thought they might raise $20,000 to $30,000 and would have been happy with that.

“To these candidates, $10,000 is ‘Do I have enough canvassers to hit all the doors I need to knock?,’ ‘Do I have enough money to put in that final mailer?’ Your money can go a lot further and you can meaningfully change something,” McElwee explained. “If you’re donating to the right candidate, it could be the pivotal race in a lot of these chambers. A lot of them are going to be very tight.”

The idea behind their fundraising effort materialized because they realized something somewhat disheartening: Most people don’t really know much about, or pay a lot of attention to, the races happening in their own backyards and certainly not the important ones in states far away. It’s not that people don’t want to help out in these smaller but pivotal races, they often just don’t know where to look.

“Everyone knows the pivotal House districts that are the most competitive and where your money can go the furthest, and everyone can figure that out with the Senate, but when you’re talking about the Arizona State Senate, who the hell knows which districts are more likely to determine control and which are winnable and which candidates need your help?” McElwee continued. “That’s difficult to find.”

Through conversations with activists, race watchers and people on the ground, Data for Progress identified an initial slate of candidates who had the potential to flip a crucial state chamber. The latest round of candidates highlights eight women in races with a chance to make a change, including Dayna Polehanki, a teacher running for senate in the “DeVos-ravaged state of Michigan,” and Katie Muth, a rape survivor and women’s health advocate running against “anti-women’s health zealot” John Rafferty.

Aside from voters excited to contribute to races they might not have been monitoring otherwise, the candidates themselves have appreciated the funds more than McElwee imagined.

One such recipient is Jim Gaughran, running for State Senate in New York.

“It is amazing to see the enthusiasm and support my campaign has received,” Gaughran said, noting that the bulk of his $50,000 raised has come from roughly 4,500 individual donors. “Next year in Albany, state legislators will decide the future of voting rights, reproductive choice and countless other important issues for roughly 20 million New Yorkers. The response to the Data for Progress list gives me tremendous hope that more and more Americans understand the consequences of what goes on in their state capitals.”

“I was genuinely surprised to hear from candidates who were having trouble hitting budgets of $40-50,000, $100,000,” McElwee said. “We’re now seeing multi-million fundraising quarters for House races across the country, but we’re having key legislative races, not just ‘ho-hum, it would be nice to win’ ones, having trouble raising money. I know a lot of people say Democrats are getting good down ballot, and I’m willing to believe that, but there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to see that we’re getting grassroots money to these candidates.”

And it’s not just because many of these candidates are inspiring, it’s how awful their opponents on the right are—”the utter banality of evil-type shit”—that is a call to action, McElwee said. One candidate Data for Progress has supported is Wade Carlisle, running for State Senate in Arizona. Carlisle’s opponent Sylvia Allen is an “enemy of public education,” critics says, a creationist who wants to make church attendance mandatory. When her prison guard son was investigated for bribing inmates in his care for sex, she tried to pass a law making that legal.

“They’re just really fucking despicable people,” McElwee said. “I hate Mitch McConnell so much, and he’s so powerful, but these people are these petty tyrants down ballot, and they use their power and they benefit through their obscurity to do really brutal things to people.”

There’s a weird paradox where people pay the most attention to the things they have the least influence over, he says. Since he’s gotten involved in New York state politics, McElwee realized that state legislators are a lot easier to speak with, and to influence, than the seemingly untouchable power brokers in D.C.

“People don’t realize how easy it is to play a very real roll in the politics of state legislatures,” he said. “I’m hoping that this sort of starts to close the gap on that. I hope people realize they can do so much down ballot.”

How Your Political Donations Can Actually Make a Difference in This Year’s Midterms