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The Futility of the Democrats’ Record-Breaking War Chest

Liberals lined the campaigns of Senate hopefuls with mountainous piles of campaign loot, only to watch it all burn up on election night.

John Cherry/Getty Images
Democrat Amy McGrath shattered fundraising records in her attempt to unseat Mitch McConnell, all for naught.

If the election returns stay on track, Joe Biden will be president, but with a Republican Senate standing in his way. Good news for a president who was, in the face of all evidence before his eyes, so firmly and consistently committed to the lie that Republicans can be worked with toward any goals held by Democratic voters. It is Tom Friedman’s America now. I am excited to see what our leaders come up with: perhaps a plan to allow asylum-seekers into the country if they agree to have their organs harvested, or a plan to make college affordable by allowing students to make their OnlyFans income tax–free. 

It will not be clear What Happened Here for a long time, or why the polls were so wrong. It might never be fully clear. We still fight about how Trump won in 2016, after all; those of us who really enjoy the pain engage in the “Would Bernie have won?” game, as painful and productive an exercise as slowly driving a pencil into your ear. The Senate seats that Democrats expected to pick up were missed, but the reasons are, for the moment, elusive. But one thing we can say is that successfully raising hundreds of millions of dollars from earnest, desperate Democrats does not guarantee victory. 

This truth was established long before last night: Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 despite massively out-raising Trump. But this election cycle brought quite a bill of particulars. Jaime Harrison lost his race, currently by about 14 points, after raising more than $86 million. Theresa Greenfield, who looked poised to pick off Joni Ernst in Iowa, lost by six points after raising $47 million, about twice as much as Ernst. Steve Bullock out-raised Montana senator Steve Daines by a two-to-one margin between July and September and lost by eight points. Mike Espy, who ran against Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi, out-raised her four-to-one; according to the latest vote totals, he hasn’t broken 40 percent. And Amy McGrath, who broke records by raising $36 million in one quarter, currently sits at 38 percent against Mitch McConnell, one of the most hated men in Democratic America. 

Again, there is likely no one unifying theory of why so many of the promising Democrats lost. Though McGrath’s decision to spend some of her loot running ads characterizing herself as a better ally of Donald Trump than McConnell in media markets that bled into Ohio will go down in history as one of the all-time dubious political moves. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that pouring money into campaigns without convincing voters that you are going to provide the means to make their lives better is not enough. (It may not win elections, but it will pay for some nice condos or renovated kitchens for the consultants who skim their paychecks off the top of these huge fundraising hauls.)

Gideon ran ads chastising Collins for not standing up to Trump more firmly; the state picked Biden, but the efforts to associate Collins with Trump did not help Gideon. In Iowa, Greenfield boasted that she would eschew partisanship and work with Republicans—which, if you want that, why not just vote for the Republican?—in ads that looked and sounded like they were made by a local discount furniture warehouse. Another ad promised she would break “gridlock,” which voters have been hearing for quite literally decades. (And if they hated gridlock, would they have sent a Republican to Washington six years ago?)

Progressives and centrist Democrats have gone back and forth for years over whether Democrats should run on bolder, more left-wing policies, or whether that would alienate centrist voters in larger numbers than could be gained in the attempt. We have at least two, if not 40, more years of such fights to look forward to. This argument may not be settled, even then. What’s crystal clear is that Democratic Senate campaigns need more to thrive and win than blockbuster fundraising hauls from pissed-off online liberals can alone provide. Perhaps the (seeming) defeat of Trump, 2020’s vaunted Final Boss who inspired wallets across the nation to open in a mad panic, will dampen this dynamic a bit, forcing Democrats down a more fruitful path. 

But it feels crushingly likely that we are going to go around this loop again. The aforementioned consultants, stuck on deciding between marble and granite countertops, will breathe a small sigh of relief at having another two years of messaging against the Senate Republicans who won’t let them legislate, free from being measured against expectations of any actual progress.
Meanwhile, Democratic voters will be told that to win, to finally kick out the Republicans and get the policies we need—or even to get campaign finance reform, the thing that would enable us to break the cycle and the merciless barrage of fundraising appeals—they just need voters to cough up one last time. They will be told this in emails that berate them and lie to them, screaming that Barack Obama is VERY UPSET that YOU, JUSTINE, have not donated yet. Still, it’s all for a good cause. Kick in $20, $50, $100, and this time your money will finally count, even if your vote doesn’t. Just pony up, please, and we’ll get there eventually. What we’ll do when we get there doesn’t matter so much.