Last November, I sat in a Brooklyn ballroom with Alejandra Gomez, who leads LUCHA, a 13-year-old Arizona youth activist group credited with mobilizing thousands of volunteers in the 2020 election. The group’s efforts helped turn Arizona — a state with a long history of GOP dominance — blue. Now Gomez, a mini-celebrity in progressive circles, was on the road, raising money for the midterm elections. But the money was trickling in slowly.
“We’re not taken seriously,” she told the room of well-heeled New Yorkers who had gathered there for an event sponsored by Swing Left, a political organization that helps to support Democrats and Democratic groups. “We’re brown kids from trailer parks. When we go into conference rooms, they looking at us like that’s a cute anecdote.”
In the 2022 midterm U.S. elections, Arizona will join Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan as defining states, with tight races for governor, the Senate and dozens of Congressional seats. At stake: issues crucial for Democrats including election integrity and reproductive rights.
But mistrust between Democratic donors in big cities and grassroots groups like LUCHA, embedded in rural and suburban communities of color, continues to present a serious challenge for Democrats. This year, groups such as RISE, a student advocacy and voter mobilization group led by Max Lubin, and the Sunrise Movement, a five-year-old climate advocacy group, are once again sounding the alarm: If you want us to help you, you have to help us.
“ Conservative donors spend more than three times what their counterparts on the left do in youth education and activism. ”
The Democrats’ arms-length rapport is a stark contrast to the relationship that Republican donors have with their own young activists. Despite their stodgy, buttoned-up reputation, every year conservative donors spend more than three times what their counterparts on the left do in youth education and activism.
Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, for example, raked in close to $55 million for its fiscal year ending in June 2021. (Turning Point Action, its political arm, raised $11 million.) Compare this to the $11.7 million the Sunrise Movement has brought in, in recent years, and RISE’s 2022 budget of $4 million.
These slimmer budgets mean that some left-leaning grassroots groups have to rely on volunteer trainers rather than the professional ones that right-wing groups pay for. The Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists, raised $23 million in 2020. Run For Something, its much smaller left-leaning counterpart, raised a fraction of that.
These grassroots groups can’t afford to bring young activists together for the kind of large, elaborate conferences that right-wing youth groups are known for. And even though it was young activists during the Obama-era who revolutionized social media as a political tool, it is now right-leaning groups who are winning the web war, as they pump millions into social media campaigns that they rigorously test to get as much traction as possible.
“ Democrats are notorious for only opening the spigot as campaign seasons near their end and for their touchy relationship with progressive youth groups.”
It has long been a truism in Democratic circles that Democratic donors, whose political committees raised an estimated $130 million last election cycle, are as — if not more — generous than their Republican counterparts. But their giving patterns can be maddening for folks on the ground. Democrats are notorious for only opening the spigot as campaign seasons near their end, when a grave sense of urgency has kicked in, and for their touchy relationship with progressive youth groups, which they often see as too soft on immigration, too demanding on environmental measures and too engaged in the kind of identity politics that can turn off voters — all the while expecting them to get out the vote when election time comes.
Stacy Kramer, a Swing Left consultant, fundraiser and donor advisor, says that despite the Democrats’ reputation as the party of the young, its donors often prefer to give directly to candidates, who may or may not win, rather than to young grassroots groups who work to register voters and build infrastructure within communities.
“It’s very hard to get people to think long term,” Kramer said. “People don’t necessarily understand that when you give to a candidate, it’s a gift. When you give to a grassroots group, it’s an investment.”
This year, that reluctance has forced activist groups to make tough decisions. On a tight budget, RISE recently launched a mobilization effort for young Black voters called Bring Black The Vote. Lubin, RISE’s co-founder and CEO, says if his group had more money, it would bring the program to every large historically Black college and university in the nation’s swing states.
Other groups have to decide between spending on campus education, neighborhood door-knocking, and online campaigns. For example, the Sunrise Movement is known for developing catchy campaigns — such as its 2020 “We are Wide Awake” campaign. But getting these campaigns traction online can be a challenge. “We’d love to have a social media department,” the group’s fundraising director Matthew Goodrich told me. “But that costs money we don’t have.”
This year as the election cycle continues — and as Democrats begin to plan for the 2024 election — they need to seriously rethink their commitment to grassroots groups, particularly as Republicans work – with some success – to recruit more young disgruntled male voters to their side. Developing an appreciation for — and a closer rapport with — progressive youth groups at a grassroots level will reap benefits, as will a commitment to giving to those groups early and often.
But that’s going to take a cultural shift among Democrats and an acceptance that the party doesn’t have to agree on everything; just the big stuff: namely beating the Republicans at the polls.
If the party of the young can’t make that shift, it may find it can no longer hold that title. “Young folks out in the field, including RISE, have propelled historic gains in turnout,” Lubin said. “But if we continue to not invest in these groups, we will eventually get beaten by the Turning Point USA’s of the world.”
Kyle Spencer is the author of “Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and its Plot for Power.” Follow her on Twitter @KyleYSpencer.