Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Money talks

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Democratic candidates face a dilemma in Arkansas. To take on the GOP members who are firmly entrenched in the state Legislature and Congress, they will need lots of money and lots of votes. The easiest way to get more votes is to spend more money. Obscene amounts of money. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and President Trump's judicial appointments, this will be our reality for a long time. The six Republicans who make up our congressional delegation have stopped pretending to care about their constituents. They vote in line with the interests of big corporations and lobbyists. They know what side their bread is buttered on.

The challengers who are popping up to take on the GOP better have deep pockets themselves, run in rich circles, or be able to raise money outside of the state: All things that seem to run counter to the principles of the millennial voters and the progressives the Democrats must capture and convince to turn out and vote. These voters aren't too keen on the political games that candidates must play in order to be competitive. To raise money, you have to ask for money. Constantly. If not done correctly, these candidates who desperately need campaign donations can turn off voters who will see them as no different from richly bought GOP senators and congressmen. The end result could be no money and low turnout.

Now that the 2018 election season is kicking into high gear, activists who have spent the past year showing up at marches, protesting in D.C., calling their members of Congress and spending every bit of extra energy to push back against this administration's agenda often consider themselves more a part of the "resistance" and groups such as the Indivisibles than the local Democratic party. They have spent the past year exhausted from fighting now only to find themselves on the receiving end of request after request for campaign contributions. Since I write about women in politics, I often hear from women across the state who are frustrated with the political process and the candidates. The year 2018 was supposed to be different. Instead, working women, who often handle the family finances and are already struggling to balance holiday spending with their regular budget, feel like they are being left out of the political process. Instead of worrying about helping a candidate meet his or her end of the year fundraising goal, many, like me, are already worried about our January budget when health insurance deductibles restart.

This past week alone, I've heard complaints from several women who feel they are being reduced to their pocketbooks and the protest work done over the past year isn't enough on its own. Now, to get access to the candidates and attend the events, they are asked to pay $50 here or a $100 there to attend a happy hour or cocktail party or other type of fundraiser.

I get the way campaign fundraising works, but many of the men and women who have taken an active role over the past year are newer to the dirty business of running for office. The candidates must make sure, in order to capture these voters, that everyone feels included in the campaign, including those who can only donate a very small amount of money or only their time. Not only are these candidates faced with the task of running for office as a Democrat, they are also faced with the task of growing the party. Costs and expenditures must be transparent. How much do you need to buy yard signs? How much is needed for TV and radio? Not everyone can navigate the Federal Election Commission website. And from the campaign filings from the third quarter, it is obvious the Democratic challengers are woefully underfunded. Sums of $3,000 or $10,000 or even $20,000 dollars on hand do not even compare with the amounts Congressmen Steve Womack and French Hill have amassed. Each of them has over $1 million ready to be used to crush their challengers. The Democrats must get creative.

Gwen Combs, running for 2nd District Congress, has the perfect background for a viral video a la Randy Bryce, taking on House Speaker Paul Ryan and Amy McGrath, running for Congress in Virginia. Like Bryce and McGrath, Combs is a veteran. She is also a teacher, union member, mother and organizer of the local women's march. Swelling music and some straight talk from Combs could result in out-of-state attention, especially with Hill's penchant for NRA money and the images out there of him laughing and smiling with Trump after the House voted to cut health insurance. But again, fancy videos aren't cheap. Takes money to raise money.

Combs and the rest of the Democrats better figure it out quick. If they are not able to raise the money to reach the people with videos and ads, they'd better figure out a way to motivate the people through grassroots campaigns. It probably won't be enough to win the big money seats, but it can help the down-ballot races. It's going to be a long, painful haul for the Democrats. To be competitive again in Arkansas statewide, they will have to start small and not take one millennial or progressive voter for granted.

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