Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold has decided to jump back into the national spotlight with LegitAction, a new online political advocacy group that plans to help local grassroots organizations raise their public profiles.
Relying on social media as well as traditional platforms like newspapers, the Wisconsin Democrat founded LegitAction in March to educate the public about threats to “four pillars” of American democracy: the Supreme Court, presidential elections, voting rights, and campaign-finance reform. Feingold does not want to diminish the importance of resisting President Trump on a daily basis, but he worries that these four pillars of democracy are vulnerable to attack as long as Americans are distracted by Trump’s daily outrages. The group is “a good connector organization” that can work with smaller groups to “broaden” their reach, objectives, and accomplishments, says Feingold, who recently lost a close November comeback bid against Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who beat him in 2010.
Supporting the Senate Democrats’ filibuster of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is high on LegitAction’s list of initial moves. Feingold says his nomination undermines the legitimacy of the high court. “It is simply illegitimate because it was Barack Obama’s appointment, not Donald Trump’s,” Feingold tells The American Prospect. “This president doesn’t have a right to fill this seat at all.”
The group would like to see a number of electoral reforms. With two of the past three presidents reaching the White House without winning the popular vote, Feingold views the Electoral College as an anachronistic embarrassment that undermines popular sovereignty. He argues that it is time to “either pass a constitutional amendment to get rid of it, or to assist the efforts to create a compact of the states” through a National Popular Vote initiative. Under this plan, when the total number of electoral votes in states whose legislatures have ratified the pledge reaches 270, each state must assign their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the nationwide popular vote. Eleven states with a combined total of 165 electoral votes have already signed on, pushing the measure 60 percent of the way toward the mark that will trigger the compact.
Threats to voting rights have mushroomed in recent years. Gerrymandering, voter-ID laws that disproportionately affect minorities, and preventing ex-felons from voting even after they are released from jail all hamper the right to vote in many states.
Campaign-finance reform, of course, was Feingold’s signature issue in the Senate. The 2002 law that bears his name, the McCain-Feingold Act (officially, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) banned soft-money donations to national candidates and parties. However, it fueled the rise of nonprofit “527” organizations—groups that are free to take large gifts from wealthy individual donors, labor unions, and corporations, and are not subject to spending limits. (These organizations cannot make donations to federal candidates, however.) Feingold argues that the Citizens United decision, which upended the 2002 reforms, has “gutted our campaign-finance system,” and has been “brutally exploited to allow unlimited money and non-disclosure.”
LegitAction plans to voluntarily disclose its contributors’ names, even though as a 501c(4) nonprofit, it is not legally required to do so. “We are more than happy to have everyone know who is supporting us, and we’re proud of the people that support us,” Feingold says. “We’re not worried about hiding them like the right-wingers.”
Feingold, who will not accept a salary for his work on behalf of the group, intends to serve as LegitAction’s spokesman, addressing these issues through speaking engagements and op-ed articles. He served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011 and currently teaches at Stanford University Law School’s Law and Policy Lab.
For the past two decades, Democratic fundraiser and operative Jonathan Zucker has been fed up with the way his party doles out funds to candidates.
The problem, as Zucker sees it, is that Democrats distribute most of their funds to candidates running in swing districts that the party sees as winnable, instead of divvying the money up evenly between every Democratic general election candidate. By picking winners and losers, Zucker argues, the party ignores large portions of the country and makes it harder for candidates to make incursions into Republican strongholds.
Zucker’s solution is a new PAC dubbed It Starts Today that sets out to solicit donations for every Democrat running in one of the 468 congressional races set for 2018. The former executive director of the digital fundraising platform ActBlue, Zucker has built his new PAC around a high-technology gimmick and simple math, asking donors to give at least one cent per month to each of those 468 candidates—a mere $4.68 a month.
“You never know which district will have a rock-star candidate emerge on the Democratic side, or say, a district where a Republican incumbent gets caught up in a scandal, but you know that without funding you can’t take that advantage,” says Zucker.
Zucker’s aim is to fix what he sees as a party-wide problem that is hurting Democrats at every level. On election night, Republicans not only won the White House, but secured six- and 44-seat majorities in the Senate and House respectively. They also cemented their grip on state governments, where the GOP now controls 32 Legislatures and 33 governorships. To Zucker, this is the price Democrats have paid for ignoring large portions of the country for decades.
Zucker acknowledges that targeting only contested races can efficiently allocate scarce resources in the short term. But the consequences of this targeted spending, he argues, have been ruinous. In 2016, there were 79 congressional districts where the Democratic Party either didn’t field a candidate, or ran a race with less than $10,000 in funding. Altogether, Democrats in those 79 districts raised $88,000 compared to the $111 million raised by Republicans.
The money raised by It Starts Today will not be distributed until the primaries are over. After that the PAC will send out equal payments to every Democratic nominee’s campaign within 10 days. As additional money comes in, further donations will be disbursed in weekly installments to every Democratic campaign in equal measure.
This will make general election money perpetually available to all Democratic office seekers, explains Zucker, something that he says will help level the playing field for progressive candidates who may lack the resources to run effective campaigns. This will free the party up to take a risk on long-shot candidates instead of focusing only on swing states, says Zucker, making it less likely that Democrats will miss low-profile politicians with enormous potential.
Even if Democrats fail to take back Congress, Zucker predicts that It Starts Today will help overall turnout. He says Democrats can make inroads in the kinds of small, rural communities that have been sending Republicans to Washington, and where Democrats have failed to field challengers for years. Zucker even thinks it could make an impact at the top of the ticket.
“What if we had turned out 12,000 voters that weren’t excited about Clinton, but weren’t voting for Trump?” asks Zucker. “That flips Michigan and Pennsylvania. And there were 24 state legislative races in Wisconsin without a Democrat on the ballot, and another 15 with under $10,000—just one thousand [voters] from each of them. That changes the presidency.”