Some Democrats worry millions flowing from super PACs prioritize White swing voters over minorities
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee,
Some Democratic strategists are raising the alarm about the millions of dollars being spent by super PACs in support of nominee Joe Biden, saying too much is being spent on White swing voters while not enough is being devoted to driving up turnout among voters of color.
The complaints are perennial, but they carry new resonance this year, as Biden has struggled to inspire enthusiasm among young Black voters and Latinos.
Many in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have urged leadership to pay closer attention to voters of color, whom they say increasingly form the backbone of the party but cannot be taken for granted. This month, a prominent Democratic donor publicly scrutinized super PAC spending, urging groups to change course as the election nears.
At the same time, President Trump’s campaign has sought to drive up his support among voters of color; on Friday, Trump was scheduled to appear at events for Black and Latino voters and unveiled a $500 billion plan to invest in Black communities.
The Democratic concerns come as more than $150 million has already been spent by the main super PACs supporting Biden, some of which have made it part of their strategy to win back supporters of former president Barack Obama who pivoted in 2016 to Trump.
Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, which focuses on mobilizing young voters of color in Georgia, said her group’s work is especially challenging this year given the lack of enthusiasm for Biden among Black youths, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black communities, and confusion around voting during a pandemic.
When she sees announcements of tens of millions of dollars being spent on disaffected White voters in swing states, she said, she finds such spending strategies “insulting.”
“One hundred million people didn’t show up to vote, and your obsession and willingness to invest tons of resources in the unicorn of an Obama-Trump voter is madness,” Ufot said, referring to the eligible voters who did not vote in 2016. “It is not a part of a strategy that is designed to animate and inspire the core of the Democratic Party and the Obama coalition, if you will. . . . Sticking to the same old tactics, sticking to the same old playbook, I don’t know that that’s a winning strategy.”
Wealthy Democratic donors are now pouring money into super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to try to influence elections, by running political ads and working on get-out-the-vote efforts.
Their donations have fueled pro-Biden super PACs, which are now vastly outspending those supporting Trump’s reelection, as Biden gains a significant cash lead in the weeks before the election.
A report released this month by Democracy in Color, a group founded by longtime Democratic donor Steve Phillips, argues that some of the biggest Democratic super PACs financed by the party’s wealthiest donors have disproportionately focused on persuading swing voters, pointing to spending announcements and publicly available expenditure data.
It suggests that such spending has come at the expense of voters from diverse communities who have a propensity to vote Democratic, particularly in potential pickup states, such as Georgia and Arizona. It urges super PACs to change course on their spending strategies for November.
“We need to improve how money is spent,” said Phillips, who has been a vocal proponent of a more multicultural approach to liberal politics. “The stakes are enormous. It’s putting at risk what can be achieved both in terms of presidential as well as flipping the Senate.”
Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a coalition of liberal donors focusing on the Democratic electorate in the South and Southwest, argued that “a new cadre” including women, voters of color and liberal Whites will drive Biden to the White House.
“It’s that energy that’s going to create coattails for Biden, not the other way around,” she said. She said she believes current Democratic spending is informed by “inertia,” relying on spending strategies of the past that have neglected those communities for too long.
Federal records show the biggest Democratic groups have spent at least $108 million this year in 13 key states, and the amount spent on each state varies widely. More than $27 million has been spent in Iowa, whereas at least $2.7 million has been spent in Texas, a state with a growing population of racial minorities.
Democracy in Color is particularly critical of super PACs that have emphasized Midwestern swing states and White working-class voters. For example, American Bridge super PAC has pledged to spend $100 million to persuade potential Trump defectors in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
American Bridge said that it has been transparent about its targeted focus this year and that it expected other groups to fill the void.
Some of the groups named by Democracy in Color noted they have significant efforts directed toward minorities. This week, two Democratic super PACs — Priorities USA Action and Senate Majority PAC (SMP) — announced a $7.5 million digital advertising program focusing on mobilizing voters of color.
In addition to its other efforts, SMP is investing millions into registering and mobilizing Black voters in North Carolina, Michigan and Georgia; spending millions on Spanish-language ads in Arizona; and funding litigation in North Carolina to improve voting access for Black voters, said its president, J.B. Poersch.
“It’s through a diverse coalition of partners that we have a track record of success of turning out voters of color and winning Senate races in states like Arizona, Nevada and Alabama,” Poersch said. “Our goal in 2020 is to not only replicate past successes but to turn out even more voters of color that are crucial to retaking the Senate majority.”
Officials with Priorities USA, which plans to spend more than $200 million this cycle, have emphasized the importance of spending money on both White working-class voters and voters of color, citing polling that indicates even the slightest decrease in support among either group could create a toss-up race for Biden.
The group has launched a $32 million campaign focusing on Black and Latino voters, which began last November. It plans to spend another $34 million on voting rights litigation, which would help make sure voters of color do not face barriers to casting their ballots.
“We’re proud of the work we’ve done this cycle to build a diverse in-house team to execute our programs and remain committed to living our values as we work to protect and expand voting rights and communicate directly with communities of color,” said Patrick McHugh, executive director of Priorities USA.
Some Democratic groups focusing on voters of color say the spending gap is improving but there is more work to be done.
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a group focused on Black voter outreach and engagement, said it has been involved in advising SMP in crafting its spending strategy, which she views as a step in the right direction.
“There’s been some progress. There is more progress to be made,” she said.
Still, the Democracy in Color analysis argues that these investments lag in comparison to other swing states with majority-White voters, pointing out that there is a “grossly disproportionate focus on Iowa and Michigan, the omission of Georgia, and the overlooking of African Americans in North Carolina.”
Others say new spending announcements targeting communities of color at this point in the general election come too late, particularly in areas where voters have a deep distrust of the parties and already face barriers to voting, such as in Georgia.
“When we talk about” a “state with a history of targeting Black voters at polls, this late investment and the same playbook from years past is particularly insulting,” Ufot said.
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.