WASHINGTON — In March 2015, a new group showed up on the political scene, seemingly out of thin air. It called itself End Citizens United PAC and said its goal was to overturn the controversial Supreme Court decision by electing more Democrats.
Scott Swenson, who coordinated public relations for Washington’s campaign finance reform community at the time, said the group’s appearance was quite a surprise: “We had our fingers on the pulse of the community, and this popped up out of nowhere.”
End Citizens United PAC launched with an aggressive strategy. Its founders were three former online fundraising specialists for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who now run the consulting firm Mothership Strategies. They imported their high-volume fundraising and list-building mindset to a cause that traditionally had drawn a few dedicated nonprofits.
The political action committee sent out urgent email solicitations, as many as seven per day, with messages asking people to “rush a donation” and become a founding member of its effort to stop Republicans from chipping away at campaign finance laws. “If we want to restore our Democracy, we can’t back down. We need to act NOW,” one email read, requesting a minimum contribution of $5.
The strategy was massively successful. In the last year, the group raised $11 million, mostly from small donations collected online.
Greg Berlin said he and the other two founders, Jake Lipsett and Charles Starnes, felt that the big political cash unleashed by Citizens United had made it impossible to pass the Democratic Party agenda. So they created a PAC to elect Democrats who could change that.
But many in Washington’s relatively small world of campaign finance reform were highly suspicious of the new player and its tactics. Marge Baker, executive director of People for the American Way, said the PAC’s hard-sell campaign was “polluting the commons.”
“In the political fundraising world, ‘churn-and-burn’ doesn’t matter,” Baker said, referring to the tactic of buying extensive lists of email addresses to pummel with requests for money. “If you burn through a list, you go on to the next one. Nonprofits build institutional relationships with supporters through a variety of actions.”
Nonprofits like People for the American Way organize protests and other events, circulate petitions, and advocate for or against legislation. In their communication with supporters, they prioritize grassroots engagement over solicitation of money.
Of course, they also need money. The new PAC’s torrent of emails was targeting the same pool of donors that a lot of campaign finance reform nonprofits rely on for their funding. Some of those recipients were confused about the source of the emails and expressed their annoyance to the established groups.
“We had a lot of our supporters asking us, ‘What is this?’” said Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
“People were saying, ‘I already donated to you,’ and it turned out to be an email from End Citizens United,” added Glenn Simpson, Public Citizen’s online development director.
Berlin, the PAC co-founder, said the outpouring of support — and money — in the PAC’s first year caught them by surprise, too. It was “proof of concept at first,” he said, “but then it just took off.”
Besides the flood of emails, there were other complaints about End Citizen United PAC’s tactics.
For one, it is incredibly difficult to stop receiving the group’s emails. “How dio [sic] i get you to quit sending daily emails?” bemoaned one member of the PAC’s Facebook page. “Seems to be a theme here!” another commenter responded.
Clicking on the “unsubscribe” button at the bottom of one of the PAC’s emails sends you to a page reading “Before You Go…,” with a video and a message asking whether you’d rather receive fewer emails instead of completely unsubscribing. (The page’s URL even says “less emails.”) There’s a place at the top of the page to submit your email address that might seem the route to unsubscribing. If you don’t scroll down and read the rest of the message, you might not realize that field merely signs you up for “fewer emails.” Clicking “submit” takes you to yet another fundraising solicitation.
The PAC’s email recipients are directed to this web page when they click the unsubscribe button. But that big red button does not unsubscribe them.
All the PAC’s online fundraising solicitations flow through ActBlue, a web hub designed to make it easier for Democrats and liberal groups to raise money over the Internet. Another practice that has raised eyebrows is how the group tries to turn one donation into many. When you try to contribute to the PAC, you’re taken to an ActBlue page where a box denoting the gift as a recurring contribution, rather than a one-time pledge, is already checked. You have to opt out of making monthly payments, rather than being asked to opt in.
“That seems like a dirty trick the GOP would pull. Please stop this,” wrote one Facebook commenter, who also said, “I totally support your efforts to overturn Citizens United.”
Other tactics include the use of misleading and often foreboding email subject lines such as “Verification Alert” and “File Will Be Closed, No Exceptions!” One email leads with a subject line referencing the recipient’s “Permanent Record.”
Three email subject lines used by End Citizens United PAC to grab the recipient’s attention.
All of these fundraising tactics are not uncommon, although hardly universal, among candidate campaigns and party committees. Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, for example, also pre-checks the recurring donation box. (But in his case, the box is highlighted to make it stand out to prospective donors. This is something End Citizens United PAC does not do.)
More to the point, such tactics have repeatedly been criticized as abusive. Michael Whitney, an online fundraising professional who works for Democratic campaigns, deplored the DCCC and other political committees’ use of language that mimics debt collection notices in The Nation in 2015. “They bank on fear: that the recipient missed a payment; that they’re behind on bills; that their power will be cut,” Whitney wrote.
Further, such practices are not standard for campaign finance reform groups, many of which also oppose deceptive marketing that targets consumers.
End Citizens United PAC’s leaders defended their strategy. Berlin of Mothership Strategies said that people can unsubscribe from the PAC’s email list, if they want.
As for the pre-checked monthly donation box, the PAC’s leaders noted that political candidates and other PACs do this, and that ActBlue clearly alerts donors that they have signed up for a recurring contribution once they complete their donation. Donors who have unintentionally signed up for the monthly gift can cancel it at any point down the line, they said.
“We definitely want to encourage people to stay engaged, but they have the absolute power at every opportunity to [stop donating] and they can always change that later if they decide two or three months down the road they don’t want to be a monthly contributor,” said Valerie Martin, lead consultant for End Citizens United PAC and a veteran of numerous Democratic congressional campaigns.
But complaints about End Citizens United PAC extend beyond how it raises money to how it spends that money.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show the PAC spent $6.3 million between its launch and the end of March this year. Some 65 percent of that went for consultants and other expenses related to list-building and fundraising — that’s over one-third of the $11 million that the group raised over the same period.
Rising Tide Interactive received $1.2 million from End Citizens United PAC, the most of any vendor. The digital firm helps Democratic candidates and other causes build their social media and email lists and raise money through online advertising.
Mothership Strategies, the firm that created End Citizens United PAC, was the second largest recipient of its spending, taking in $498,844 for fundraising and digital services. Rapid Returns, a direct mail firm that works to raise money for Democratic candidates and progressive groups, was third, with payments totaling $357,783.
End Citizens United PAC’s biggest aggregate expense has been the $1.7 million that it paid to rent lists from liberal organizations such as Change.org, Care2 and Ready for Hillary PAC, as well as progressive media outlets The Nation, The American Prospect and AlterNet. The group has also donated $458,500 to its endorsed candidates and various Democratic Party committees.
Martin and Berlin both told The Huffington Post that they want to lower the share of the group’s funds going to consultants and fundraising to around 30 percent, so that they can direct more money to candidates and to independent spending in support of those candidates.
“We started from zero almost a year ago,” Martin said. “We’ve had to make investments in infrastructure, brought a lot of people to the table. We definitely expect that to go down.”
That change seems to be underway. When HuffPost initially asked Martin and Berlin about consultant payments related to fundraising, they constituted over 70 percent of the PAC’s total expenses. In the first three months of 2016, such payments were down to 42 percent of expenses.
But spending more money on candidates will not wipe away the established reformers’ concerns — because they’ve not sure where those candidates’ priorities lie.
End Citizens United PAC chooses its candidates based on a questionnaire asking whether they oppose the Citizens United decision and would back a constitutional amendment to overturn it, and what campaign finance reform bills they have co-sponsored or supported. Established reformers note, however, that the majority of those endorsed by the PAC are not particularly known as champions of campaign finance reform. They seem to be just Democrats running in swing districts. This was especially true of the group’s early endorsements.
Many of the candidates who received the PAC’s very first endorsements had another characteristic in common. Of those 11 individuals, five were also clients of Mothership Strategies, according to a review of FEC records.
Martin described the PAC’s endorsement process as “very clear and transparent.” She said they have interviewed each of the 70 candidates before granting an endorsement.
The campaign finance reform community in Washington, meanwhile, said they heard next to nothing from the founders of End Citizens United PAC either before or immediately after its launch. The group did not reach out to the established organizations who had been working on this issue for years, despite purportedly sharing the same goal.
Swenson, who then worked at the nonprofit PR coordinator Rethink Media, brokered a meeting between the reform community and the folks behind End Citizens United PAC in May 2015. He said the older groups wanted to introduce themselves and learn about the new PAC.
Representatives from at least 20 groups working on some aspect of campaign finance reform ended up crowding around a large, square table in Washington to meet with Berlin and Martin. The reformers said they earnestly aired their worries, but many felt they got little response from the PAC’s leaders. Swenson, who is now communications director at Common Cause, described it as a “heated meeting.”
“They were very vague,” he recalled. “We expressed concerns to them about the way they were raising money.”
Every reformer involved in the meeting who spoke to HuffPost said the moment that stood out was when the reform groups asked what, if any, plans Berlin and Martin had for spending the piles of money they were raking in. Martin said they didn’t have any plans.
More recently, Berlin told HuffPost that they had clear plans at the time of the meeting, but chose to answer the question evasively because they didn’t “want to commit to anything in case we decide to change plans.”
At that meeting, End Citizens United PAC did agree to a few concessions to appease the reform community. The group promised to take a week’s break from the email frenzy and to better identify itself as a political action committee in communications with donors.
“We did honor both of those,” Martin said. “We did take a freeze. We stepped back and took a look at what we were doing. We felt confident about how we were going to move forward after that, and we have been very clear and very transparent about our mission since day one.”
The PAC began emailing its list again after the week-long pause, although the reform community’s concerns were not assuaged. Two subsequent, smaller meetings with the PAC’s leaders did not persuade them to adjust their tactics any further.
Reform groups differed on what their next steps might be.
Move to Amend, a nonprofit coalition supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, outright denounced the PAC on its website. “They’re co-opting the momentum and excitement for our movement to fundraise for candidates who may or may not even support amending the Constitution to ‘end Citizens United’ and who certainly have shown no leadership in addressing the even more root issue of corporate constitutional rights,” Move to Amend’s national director, Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, wrote to her group’s supporters.
Some of the long-time reformers hoped to make the clash public, but also feared negative press could further confuse and ultimately discourage supporters. Others counseled a wait-and-see approach, wanting to watch how End Citizens United PAC spent its money. The latter position won out, though many still harbored negative feelings about the PAC.
“We do not like them,” Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said bluntly.
Martin’s spin on the spat is more optimistic. “We are willing to work with anyone who cares about this issue.”
Not every campaign finance reform group is opposed to End Citizens United PAC’s methods. David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, is one of the few who is willing to work with the PAC.
“I’m hopeful that when they spend their money this year, it will be an effective and positive addition to what all the groups are doing, which is to reduce the influence of money in politics,” he said.
Donnelly has some experience with groups attempting this strategy. He worked with the Friends for Democracy super PAC in the 2012 election to support pro-reform candidates, and Every Voice Action, a super PAC affiliated with Every Voice, spent $2.2 million in the 2014 race for the same purpose.
Similarly in 2014, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig started Mayday PAC, a super PAC to support candidates from both parties who backed campaign finance reform. It was not a very successful effort, as its endorsed candidates lost in every competitive election.
Though these efforts may have faltered in the past, Donnelly argues that electing a Democratic Congress — or at least a Democratic Senate — is now actually a reasonable path to securing campaign finance reform, given the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The Senate will (eventually) have to approve someone to replace him on the high court, and that justice may decide the next big campaign finance case.
A Democratic Senate might approve a new Supreme Court justice who supports campaign finance reform. The current Republican Senate is refusing to move on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee.
“A political strategy to elect a Democratic majority in the Senate is as viable a strategy as any other to get the court to overturn Citizens United,” said Donnelly.
On March 3, End Citizens United PAC went on the air in New Hampshire and Missouri with ads urging Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), both up for re-election, to support a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee this year. Overall, the PAC has spent $1.2 million on that advertising campaign. The group has also endorsed the Democratic challengers in those two Senate races.
The PAC also pressed its email list to attend events calling for a prompt hearing and vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in a March 17 message.
Donnelly touted End Citizens United PAC’s work on a successful 2015 ballot initiative that enhanced Maine’s system of public financing for elections. The group helped recruit volunteers and raise $12,000 — a small enough share of its $11 million fundraising total. The PAC did similar work on a Seattle ballot initiative that passed and said it has donated $25,000 to another such effort in Idaho and plans to use its list to help other initiatives this year.
As for the reform community’s concerns about its tactics and plans, Martin acknowledged, “We are different in our approach and different in the kind of work we do.”
She suggested the two approaches could complement each other. “For example, they do amazing work with grassroots advocacy, working with legislators, pushing specific bills,” she said. “We want to elect good people for them to work with.”
Nice words, but they don’t seem likely to heal the rift between End Citizens United PAC and some of the biggest boosters of campaign finance reform in Washington.
“They are undermining the movement,” Swenson said. “They say they want to help, but they are profiting off of it and undermining it at the same time.”