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The Donkey in the Room: How the DSCC is undermining the democratic process

Max Pushkin ’22.5 and Ben Lipson ’22.5 are two of the co-founders of Make Room, a grassroots political action committee.

On a cloudy June morning in the state of Kentucky, voters lined up across the state to cast their ballots in the 2020 Democratic Primary. While voters sought to make their voices heard, the outcome of the day’s most important race was already a foregone conclusion. Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath and State Representative Charles Booker were competing to become Kentucky’s Democratic nominee for the United States Senate. Weeks before the election, polling showed momentum favoring Booker. The idea of electing a young progressive speaking out against rampant societal injustices appealed to many, but not to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). In response to Booker’s surge, the DSCC endorsed Amy McGrath and pumped tens of millions of dollars into her campaign, figures that dwarfed Booker’s grassroots fundraising totals. After Booker lost by fewer than three percentage points, progressives decried the DSCC’s actions as an unfair intervention into the race.

The dynamics of Booker’s race were not anomalous. For decades, the DSCC has hijacked primary races to boost their handpicked candidates and used large donations to impede anyone seeking to challenge its stranglehold on the primary process. The DSCC is a comprehensive national political action committee (PAC) run by Senate Democrats with the sole purpose of electing Democrats to the Senate. While this stated mission is a noble goal and a necessary one, the DSCC’s involvement in primaries is undemocratic and eliminates choice for voters by endowing establishment candidates with millions of dollars’ worth of Super PAC campaign contributions.

In the 2020 Senate primaries, the DSCC made 18 endorsements; 17 of these candidates won their primary races. The DSCC wields its power by spending hundreds of millions of dollars in primaries, using its considerable resources to control which candidates voters are exposed to. The DSCC strongly favors moderate, establishment politicians, as evidenced by its centrist leadership: The DSCC is currently chaired by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and has previously been chaired by other establishment Democrats such as Chuck Schumer. Thus, establishment Democrats, rather than the electorate, are allocating millions to determine the Senate’s newest members. In the words of Charles Booker, “The Democratic Party shouldn’t be in the business of interfering in primaries before voters have had a chance to make their voices heard.”

Booker is right. The DSCC’s actions are undemocratic. The DSCC’s complement on the House side, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, does not endorse in open primaries and allows voters to choose who will represent the party before putting money into the race. The DSCC, however, does not grant voters that luxury.

A prime example of the DSCC’s corrosive approach to Democratic politics is the 2020 North Carolina Senate primary. Progressive Erica Smith announced her candidacy for the United States Senate in January 2019, over a year before the primary date. If elected, she would have become the state’s first ever person of color to serve in the Senate. The DSCC, however, had other plans. Smith met with the DSCC in June and again in August, but Democratic party leadership remained noncommittal. Democratic strategists even reportedly attempted to persuade other candidates to enter the race for months. Weeks before Cal Cunningham announced his run for Senate, Smith saw the writing on the wall, saying, “I know the DSCC was looking for someone with a bigger name or bigger pockets, and my response is: The DSCC needs to look at someone with a big heart and a big record of service.” Finally, in June 2019, Cunningham announced his run for Senate. Ultimately, like Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Cunningham lost in the general election, conceding the race to incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis in November 2020.

While the DSCC waited until October 2019 to endorse Cunningham, the endorsement was all but guaranteed from the start. In July 2019, three months prior to the DSCC endorsement, DSCC Deputy Executive Director Devan Barber was hired to be Cunningham’s campaign manager. In the second quarter of 2019, Chuck Schumer directed over 50 of his donors to max out their donations to Cal Cunningham’s campaign. Due to her statewide grassroots efforts, Erica Smith ended up securing 35 percent of the vote to Cunningham’s 57 percent—a remarkable feat, considering Cunningham’s massive fundraising advantage.

This election cycle, the DSCC has spent over $200 million in Senate races. Another subversion of the democratic process is the fact that most of this money is completely untraceable, due to the DSCC’s status as an independent expenditure committee, or Super PAC. Since the 2010 landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), Super PACs have held a vice-like grip over our political system. On both sides of the aisle, money is everything.

Super PACs are antithetical to the concept of free and fair elections. They allow special interest groups, corporations, and parties to spend unlimited funds on elections without requiring reports on individual donors. The only caveat is that the committees must operate “independently” of the campaigns they are supporting, but in our political system, the independence clause means next to nothing. Coordination between Super PACs and campaigns runs rampant, and there is no stopping it. Organizations like the DSCC use loopholes in our campaign finance system to spend millions of dollars in primary races without disclosing any data. As a result, these Super PACs can be funded by large corporations, Wall Street executives, and any other special interest group imaginable without the public knowing anything at all. While the DSCC spends the bulk of their millions on consultants and media companies that inundate Senate races with ads supporting their handpicked primary candidates, candidates that embrace grassroots fundraising do not have the access or funds to do the same.

If political power is supposed to be derived from the people, campaigns need to be centered on local issues and struggles within communities. A top-down approach from the DSCC damages the fabric of our democracy and contorts this mission. Politics functions on the notion that anyone seeking to improve their community can run for public office. This ideal means nothing if the DSCC continues to engage in inherently undemocratic practices that manipulate primary results. For the sake of our democracy, the DSCC must stop endorsing and bankrolling candidates in open primaries, and opt instead to fund candidates only in the general election. Our politicians should stand for their constituents, not for an endorsement from the DSCC.