I’ve never been a big political donor before. Mostly because I’m not wealthy, and the vast amounts of money that flow into and out of our political system make the tiny amounts I can contribute seem irrelevant. But my involvement with smaller-scale House of Delegates races, plus my sense of utter desperation after November 2016 changed all that this year. So I gave. Not a lot in the scale of politics, but a lot for me personally. Here’s some of what I learned:
My delegate, Marcus Simon summed it up pretty nicely at an Arlington Huddle meeting a few months ago: “How badly do you need a victory party?” That’s really important. If you need to taste that success, to know that you contributed to a win, then you should look for races that look to be close, but that have a good chance of going your way.
Personally, I needed to be inspired more than I needed victory parties (although I ended up getting both!). So I gave with my heart–I gave to candidates, not races. If you received money from me this year, it was because I believed in you, your message, your reasons for wanting to serve, your work ethic. (With one big exception toward the very end of the election, in a fit of anxiety.)
I wouldn’t criticize anyone for either view. The only thing I would say is that donating to candidates who inspired me meant no regrets–whether they won or lost, I never regretted for a second the money I gave them. I’m not sure I would have said the same if I’d donated to races I thought we could win, and then lost.
People asked me all year who they should donate to, or where. And I absolutely could not, and would not presume to tell them that. But there are some good guidelines for donating, some of which I learned just this year.
The first and best way to donate is to do your research first. Find races or candidates that match your objectives, and give directly to those candidates. Find out where they stand on issues that are important to you–if you can’t find it on their web page, feel free to reach out to them and ask! (In the case of very young, first-time candidates, your questions may help them formulate their own position on issues that they aren’t experts at.) If you care about campaign finances, I highly recommend checking www.vpap.com to find out who else is donating to your candidate. Don’t like Dominion’s influence in Virginia politics? Don’t donate to those taking donations from Dominion. Don’t like the tobacco industry? Don’t donate to those taking donations from Altria.
You can also use VPAP to check how your candidate is spending your money–it’s a good way to make sure you’re giving to someone who’s running a clean, efficient campaign. (Virginia currently has no rules governing what your donations need to be spent on, so it’s something you’ll have to oversee on your own.) If you’re donating to incumbents who don’t face a serious challenge, many times they will donate their own campaign funds to another candidate of their choice or to the Caucus–so bear in mind that your donation may or may not be used to finance their own campaigns or the services they provide. On the other side of the coin, some incumbents don’t face challengers, but still hold on tight to the donations they collected all year, and don’t use their funds to help win more seats–it’s up to you how you feel about that, but VPAP is your friend here!
If you just don’t have the time, energy or ability to do that research, look for a PAC or CrowdPAC that supports a slate of candidates meeting some particular set of criteria. This year there were PACs supporting female candidates, LGBTQ candidates, rural candidates, most flippable district candidates, etc. This can often be a simple way to just donate without working too hard. The downside is that the exact distribution of funds to candidates can vary, and there can be expenses associated with the operation of the PAC that are subtracted from funds before distributing. Even if you give to a PAC, you should follow up on VPAP to see how they used the donations they received. (Really, the same is true for non-political donations. When you give directly to a single nonprofit, you should check up on them to see how much of your donation went to the cause as opposed to administrative costs; when you give to United Way, you should check to see how they distribute the donations among nonprofit charities.)
Giving directly to the House Caucus and Senate Caucus–which are just specific PACs–is another option, especially if you want to simply defer to the expertise and strategies of the party leadership. What I learned about that this year is that these groups really need victory parties–so they take a fairly conservative approach to passing along their funds to races. Their choices and results are under far greater scrutiny than most other PACs, so it’s not too surprising they are pretty risk-averse. They were a bit too conservative for my taste, but to their credit, right at the end of the race, they had the ability to quickly push over $100,000 each to district 21 and district 94 for tv ads to capitalize on last minute news and opportunities to win there.
A final thought: give early and give often. I hate that political races cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I hate that over $55 million was spent on the gubernatorial race alone. It’s obscene and disgusting in the face of the vast financial needs of our state and the vast poverty of many of our residents. But until legislation passes that limits campaign finance donations and spending, we’re stuck here. I’ve been promised by many that a closer split in the General Assembly will result in such legislation, so I’ll be watching closely. But in the meantime, I discovered that even my tiny donations were important this year. And if shelling out hundreds of dollars in September is painful, signing up for an automatic small-dollar monthly donation (starting as soon as they’re allowed to fundraise) is a good idea, and actually makes it much easier for campaigns to plan their expenses better. This is your government, play whatever role you possibly can in shaping it into what you want–donate, volunteer, call or write your representatives and let them know your views, talk to your friends and neighbors about your representatives. Whatever you do, don’t just bury your head in the sand and hope things get better, they won’t get better without you!