On Saturday afternoon, as the champagne virtually uncorked itself in New York City in celebration of what looked like the end of Trumpism, an alternate history was unfolding in the southern stretches of Brooklyn. A Republican named Mark Szuszkiewicz was leading in a race against an incumbent for a State Assembly seat in and around Coney Island that had been held by a Democrat for decades.
The current representative, a Haitian-American named Mathylde Frontus, had run a social-services agency she founded, fighting for the poor and disabled. Mr. Szuszkiewicz was a real estate agent whose support extended incongruously to tax credits for organic farmers and mandatory life-skills training in public schools (because too many people “don’t know what a Phillips-head screwdriver is,” he said in a debate). He also seemed to be a QAnon follower.
It was not money that pushed such an unusual candidacy forward. On the contrary, Mr. Szuszkiewicz raised about $1,400 — less than what it might cost to buy a 15-year-old Subaru. Ms. Frontus fared marginally better — she brought in close to $9,500, according to the state’s Board of Elections, with top donations coming from people who shared the last name Frontus.
Presented with a contest between an incumbent holding four graduate degrees — including a doctorate from Columbia — and a candidate sympathetic to a fantasy alleging world domination by a chain of Satanist pedophiles extending from Georgetown to Santa Monica, you would think that New Yorkers beyond the district might have opened their checkbooks in the name of proven competence and clarity.
But their attention was focused elsewhere. They were long into a delirious bender pouring piles of money into high-profile Senate races around the country, some of them predictably unwinnable.
Political giving, as with so much else in life, is driven as much by emotion and a vague sense of status proximity as it is by ideology and a practical calculus. Liberals have spent the past four years consumed by rage, and nothing motivates quite like fury, which demands no accounting of logic. As it happened, three ZIP codes on the Upper West Side sent more than $1.5 million in single, itemized donations to the doomed Democratic Senate campaigns of Amy McGrath in Kentucky, who was a long shot to defeat Mitch McConnell, and Jaime Harrison, who was unlikely to overtake Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
That donors gravitate toward the excitement is another dimension of the psychology. They don’t want to trawl local cable-access channels to find their candidates, Brad Hoylman, a New York State senator, told me. “They want to see Rachel Maddow talking about them.”
And so begins a precarious feedback loop: the more Rachel Maddow talks about you, the more money you raise and then the more you have to spend buying ads on “Rachel Maddow.” Ads for Sara Gideon, who challenged the Republican incumbent Susan Collins for a Senate seat in Maine and lost, ran on television, Facebook, streaming services, everywhere. She managed to raise more than $100,000 from a single nine-block radius on the east side of Midtown. From New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, she, Ms. McGrath and Mr. Harrison collectively pulled in upward of $20 million.
To be clear, these numbers represent a fraction of the spending that flowed into these races from New York. These merely comprise the donations under the $5,800 individual limit and stand wholly apart from the money funneled to Senate races from political action committees.
On the Democratic side, the biggest of these is the Senate Majority PAC, aligned with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. It put $5 million toward Mr. Harrison’s effort and $35 million in the Senate race in North Carolina, where a Democrat also lost. In New York, the top 45 donors to this committee contributed close to $40 million, with nearly a third of that coming from three Manhattan money managers.
Overall the Senate Majority PAC raised $254 million during the 2020 election cycle; the subsequent failures ought to prompt a new conversation about money in politics among mainstream Democrats — about how it is solicited and allocated and where it is best deployed. Both Ms. McGrath and Mr. Harrison shattered fund-raising records, delivering unsatisfying returns on investment. Similarly, Michael Bloomberg’s outlay of $100 million spread through Florida, Texas and Ohio to defeat Donald Trump ended in losses for Joe Biden in all three states.
These questions take on an urgency now that the country’s next four years may be politically determined by the outcome of two Senate runoffs in Georgia — races that will attract enormous sums of money on both sides. Just this week, the former presidential contender Andrew Yang announced that he and his wife were moving to Georgia to help Democrats secure the Senate, without which the party will achieve few of its goals. On Twitter, he encouraged others to do the same.
While it is unclear how many Democrats will be free to pick up and move to, say, Twiggs County, any money spent on organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts will arguably have a greater yield than sending cash to individual candidates, much of which often ends up in the pockets of consultants and major networks.
As many on the left have pointed out, the situation in Georgia requires a different approach, when all four Senate candidates are known quantities in their own state. “When you have 100 percent name recognition,’’ Bradley Tusk, an investor and political strategist, said, “what is TV really going to tell you?”
Progressives want to see the balance shift, with more money given over to statehouse races and those further down the ballot, both to build a deep bench of potential candidates for federal elections and to ensure that Republicans don’t gain more control of redistricting. “Party organizations and recruitment organizations that do candidate training need money and resources consistently,” Michael M. Franz, a political scientist and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, told me. “It seems like we learn and unlearn this lesson on a regular basis.”
When Ms. Frontus’s opponent appeared on the scene, she knew not to dismiss him, although her fellow Democrats found that much easier to do, she told me. “People were thinking in terms of textbook definitions — ‘he has no money; his website looks like a fifth grader did it; it’s not a real race.’” But Ms. Frontus could see Trump fervor rising around her district; people were unhappy about quality-of-life issues and blaming Democrats. Though the race is still too close to call, Mr. Szuszkiewicz has a real chance of winning.
“I specifically said, ‘I’m expecting this guy to get upward of 15,000 votes,’” she told me, “and people said I was ridiculous.”
Rachel Shorey contributed research.
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