Democratic Donors Hit Pause as Party Debates Whether to Focus on Race In 2022

In the wake of a Virginia's governor's race debacle that sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party, dazed donors are among those taking stock of where the party is and where it's going.

Some, however, are so frustrated that they are pausing or stopping their giving to a Party that will need all the resources it can muster to beat back an expected Republican resurgence in 2022.

One Democratic donor who has been a consistent presence since the Obama administration has told associates that he will only take part in the local politics of the swing state he lives in from now on, and is "out" of national politics for the foreseeable future, Newsweek has learned.

"He's done," a source said. "He's just done with politics overall right now."

Some Democrats who deal with donors caution that everyone is fatigued with politics heading into the holidays, including donors, who are asked to pony up for election contests and sometimes have to deal with the fallout from embarrassing losses.

But news of the retreating donor comes on the heels of a November New York Times report that hedge fund executive Donald Sussman is pausing his donations to the Party until it moves forward with voting rights legislation.

Sussman is a major Democratic donor who gave $21 million to top Democratic super PAC Priorities USA in 2016, and close to $50 million to candidates and campaigns during Donald Trump's presidency.

The misgivings from donors come at a perilous time for Democrats, with President Joe Biden's approval rating at the lowest point of his presidency.

In a recent CNN piece titled "History says Biden and Democrats probably won't recover by the midterms," data reporter Harry Enten argued that it was extremely unusual for the GOP to have any type of advantage on the generic ballot at this point in a midterm cycle, with the few historical analogies pointing to a Republican "wave" next year.

That dire political reality has caused Democrats to examine how they can improve their messaging for the 2022 midterms, with voting rights legislation and Republican's use of critical race theory pushing the issue of race to the forefront.

"The most loyal Democratic voters are Black voters for the last 50 years, that's why this is difficult," said Ray Paultre, the executive director of the Florida Alliance, a table comprised of dozens of progressive donors who coordinate their short- and long-term goals. "The party is struggling with how to center issues long overlooked by America in general."

But not everyone agrees that prioritizing issues surrounding race is a winning strategy.

Many Democrats would prefer a meat-and-potatoes message centered around the economy, which speaks to the concerns of the largest possible group of voters without turning off independents and white voters. They point to Democrats suffering a 15-point drop with white women in the 12 months between the 2020 presidential election and the Virginia's governor's race.

"We give up that percentage, we can't win anywhere," a Democrat who works on messaging told Newsweek, before turning to the idea of voting rights legislation in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. "I don't think voting rights matters to voters at all. Maybe it saves the democracy, but it doesn't move voters."

Democrats who work to turn out Black voters, however, argue that Republicans have a narrow base, so their messaging that receives high marks can be more narrow, while Democrats have a much wider base and so must employ more complex concepts, such as cross-racial solidarity.

These Democrats make the case that Black voters have long allowed the Democratic party to go broader with their messaging to attract white voters, but the frustration comes when campaigns are run this way and it doesn't result in specific positive change for Black voters.

Voting rights, these Democrats insist, are about Black people, "because they lose the most when voting rights are under attack."

The issue of critical race theory, which argues that racism is embedded in the U.S. legal system and its policies, has also risen in importance in the minds of Democrats who saw how education became a mobilizing issue for frustrated voters in the Virginia governor's race.

Paultre would like to see Democrats embrace messaging that shows they will not stand idly by as Republicans use Black voters and issues they care about as a scare tactic to get white voters out. But they acknowledged a Catch 22: While issues of race deeply matter to Democratic voters, talking about them is exactly what Republicans want.

That is why he and others embrace a populist economic message that doesn't shy away from race.

"You can't do either or, you have to do both," he said.

Paultre said such messaging is about correctly identifying "who is doing you wrong and saying, 'I'm going to go and fight on your behalf.'"

While fighting on behalf of voters is going to vary by state and city, the key delivery system for that message is populism, Paultre argued.

"Donald Trump was a populist. Who you blame is the big difference," he said. "Trump blamed immigrants, Reagan blamed the welfare state and Black people, and Obama blamed the banks."

Way To Win, a progressive donor network that helped raise $110 million during the 2020 election, says looking at the three major post-Trump era elections, which include the Georgia Senate runoffs and California governor recall race, is more useful than focusing on Virginia alone.

"You have to give people clarity about what we're going to do," Way To Win co-founder Jenifer Fernandez Ancona said of the Georgia messaging, which included the effective "money in your pocket and shots in arms."

"It's about speaking to people's actual concerns," she told Newsweek, "and as simple as that sounds, it didn't happen in Virginia."

Democrats say the Party must emphasize its wins on COVID relief, infrastructure packages and lowering the unemployment rate, and move past the Trump-focused message that appeared to doom Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.

"Branding the GOP as the party of extremism is very different than just blaming Trump," Ancona said. She called Trump "an invisible bogeyman we can't rely upon to turn out the voters we need to win," noting that Newsom did a better job of telling this story than McAuliffe did.

Still, Ancona said a big lesson in Georgia was that Democrats can't ignore the issue of race, which she said the right weaponizes. The Georgia race featured now-Senator Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor, and the issues in the runoff were often listed as "jobs, health, and justice."

"They talked about voting rights. Those issues are salient for the Biden coalitions," she said. "Terry McAuliffe's campaign didn't address it until the very end. We can't ignore it. Race is on the table."

California Representative Tony Cardenas said Democrats have a responsibility to remind Americans that they "helped them get through the worst of times" by lessening the danger of COVID and boosting the economy, but they need to avoid focusing on the "sausage-making" in politics.

"We need to do less talking about the process," he said. "The average American could care less if we have to deal with cloture, House rules, Senate rules; they really don't care about that."

"We have to get over ourselves," Cardenas said. "That's what we deal with in Washington, but we don't have to bore the American people with that."

Where he became animated, however, is in discussing race and engagement with non-white voters through the lens of a Latino voter.

"With all due respect, we're stuck on stupid, hiring the same consultants over and over who don't have a good win-loss record," he said pointing to Latino consultants who could craft a culturally competent message in key markets like South Florida and South Texas with uniquely resonant messaging in each area.

That strategy would be better, he argued, than the tired approach of TV ads aired "in the last few weeks, throwing money away," rather than doing things like getting on Spanish-language radio.

And part of the reset must be in donor relations.

A source who works closely with donors told Newsweek their fatigue is real, but that is partly of their own doing, because they have focused on the pageantry of national elections to the detriment of everything else.

Still, the source acknowledged that donors write the checks, and in some states Democrats are outgunned 5-to-1 or 6-to-1 by Republican financiers.

Democratic donors, it seems, are in the driver's seat, and they expect what they were promised.

"I don't want Donald Sussman's money going away," the source said. "When Republicans pay for something they want to see results, and they got Donald Trump's tax bill. Democratic donors are saying we want what we paid for."

black voters matter
Voting rights activists participate in a demonstration at Lafayette Square August 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. Local lawmakers from across the U.S. joined Black Voters Matter, Declaration for American Democracy, and other national organizations in a protest to urge President Joe Biden “to put the full weight of his office behind voting rights protections,” and demanded the U.S. Senate delay its August recess and pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Alex Wong/Getty Images