Campaign Finance as it Relates to Progressivism

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) at a rally in Boston, MA. (AP Photo / Steven Senne)

As the 2020 presidential election draws closer and closer, the field of Democratic candidates is slowly winnowing. Gone are the likes of former Governor John Hickenlooper and Representative Eric Swalwell as they failed to gain traction in a crowded race. But there are two candidates that are likely to stick around for quite some time. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are two of the leading candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination spearheading modern progressivism. 

But unlike Emily Tisch Sussman’s recent appearance on MSNBC, in which she stated “Basically at this point, if you’re still supporting Bernie over Warren, it’s kind of showing your sexism”, there are significant differences between the two candidates. One of the largest of which being how they differ on campaign contributions. Both candidates have refused to accept corporate political action committee money, a litmus test for Democrats brought to the forefront of politics by Bernie’s upstart 2016 presidential run. However, Warren’s pledge comes with a few asterisks. She is open to taking donations from Super PACs, corporate executives, and billionaires yet is running a campaign denouncing those very monied interests. 

Senator Warren has committed to not taking corporate PAC money for this presidential primary, an important litmus test for progressives given the outsized influence that big interests have in politics. But according to an interview that Warren did with Chris Hayes of MSNBC, she does not believe in “unilateral disarmament”, meaning that she will take corporate PAC money in the general election. Her reasoning is that because the Republicans will be taking special interest money, she doesn’t want to put herself and the party at a disadvantage. A valid excuse, but the implications of this bring her motive into question. Firstly, she’s only doing this in the primaries in order to ward off potential criticism from the left and, if she were to make it to the general election, do away with the pledge since she will be the only Democratic candidate running. Furthermore, since there is more money spent on the general election than the primaries, not taking corporate money in the latter but doing so in the former means that overall, corporate money will have a larger influence in the election. This also reinforces the notion that both major political parties — the Democrats and the Republicans — are beholden to corporate interests. Lastly, the implications of taking corporate money at all are very troubling. Corporations and the extremely wealthy don’t give money to candidates because they like the candidates’ social policies or because of their own benevolence; they give money to candidates to protect and expand their own economic interests. This is what would be expected of Warren if she were to move on to the general election. 

An especially troubling action by the Warren campaign deals with her last Senate campaign. According to the New York Times, Elizabeth Warren transferred $10.4 million from her Senate campaign account to her presidential campaign account shortly after announcing her presidential run. This is noteworthy due to the fact that a significant portion of that money was money that Warren is claiming she isn’t taking, big donor money. According to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a former Warren bundler, “She didn’t have any trouble taking our money the year before. All of a sudden, we were bad guys and power brokers and influence-peddlers. In 2018, we were wonderful.” There’s something much larger than Warren’s alleged epiphany as to why she abruptly swore off big money. It shows that her willingness to not take big money likely has more to do with the fact that Senator Sanders made it politically harmful for her to continue, given that he shifted the Overton Window on campaign finance with his historic 2016 run. 

Despite the fact that Warren is committed to not taking big money or money from corporate PACs, she has taken money from a number of wealthy executives. For example, according to the Washington Examiner, Senator Warren has taken a “$5,400 donation from Jonathan Lavine, co-managing partner at Bain Capital and chief investment officer at Bain Capital Credit. The private equity firm is headquartered in Boston. Lavine’s wife also reportedly contributed $5,400 to Warren.” Another contribution is mentioned, this one from Larry Rasky, the head of a powerful lobbying firm in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe described Rasky Partners earlier this year as “one of the busiest lobbying firms in Massachusetts.” Rasky and his wife each contributed $5,400 to Warren’s campaign.” These are not the only rich executives and lobbyists that have contributed to Warren’s campaign, and it is important to realize the hypocrisy in Warren taking money from these people, given her campaign is claiming to be grassroots and to be rejecting money like this. 

Ultimately, Warren taking big money makes the difference between her campaign and that of Senator Sanders all the more clear. Warren’s policies and her agenda are likely highly influenced by the money she receives from these special interests, which can be seen from her past. For example, the Daily Beast reported that Warren has taken money from Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors in the country, as recently as 2014 and continues to accept big dollar donations from employees of Raytheon. This makes actions such as voting for all three of Trump’s military budget increases all the more troubling. The same goes for her hesitance to fully support single-payer healthcare, her means-tested student loan forgiveness plan, and her conservative wealth-taxation plans for the wealthy. The fact of the matter is that corporations and wealthy individuals donate to those that will support their economic interests. That is why Warren has received donations from multiple billionaires in this campaign and Sanders has yet to receive any. 

In conclusion, while the differences between Warren and Sanders may initially seem inconsequential, a more in depth analysis into their campaign finances shows that Warren is not being truthful in her pledge to reject big money. Senator Sanders does not take money from wealthy executives or lobbyists, didn’t do so in 2018 then transfer the money to his presidential campaign, and won’t do so for the general election. This commitment to running a grassroots campaign funded by the people is shown by his decades-long political career in which he’s been consistent on the issues that he is still fighting for today. The same cannot be said about Warren, who only began to support some of the major policies of the progressive platform when it became politically convenient to do so. 

Feature Image Source: AP Photo / Steven Senne in WBUR