Senate Democrats’ political machine has spent more than $15 million to help more moderate Senate candidates defeat progressive primary challengers in the 2020 election cycle.
With the help of the party, its major donors, and the Senate Majority PAC (SMP) — a super PAC funded by labor unions, corporate interests, and Wall Street billionaires — candidates endorsed by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have won contested primaries in four battleground states.
While the DSCC’s chair, Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto, said last year that the party would support progressive incumbent Massachusetts senator Ed Markey if he faced a primary challenger, he hasn’t seen any outside help yet from the DSCC or SMP in his tough battle with Rep. Joe Kennedy III.
Colorado was the most emblematic example of the party putting its thumb on the scale against progressives: There, former governor John Hickenlooper cruised to a primary victory over former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff. In the final weeks of the race, SMP spent $1 million to boost Hickenlooper, after he spent his failed presidential campaign attacking key tenets of progressives’ legislative agenda, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
At the time of the cash infusion, Hickenlooper was losing ground in the polls and engulfed in scandals: he had just been fined by Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission for violating state ethics law as governor, the local CBS station uncovered evidence of his gubernatorial office raking in cash from oil companies, and a video that was circulated showed Hickenlooper comparing his job as a politician to a slave on a slave ship, being whipped by a scheduler.
With the help of SMP and the endorsement of the DSCC, Hickenlooper held off the more progressive Romanoff to win a 17-point primary victory.
Unions, Billionaires, and Corporate Interests
SMP is led by former top staffers at the DSCC. The super PAC has raised a staggering $118 million this cycle, pooling cash from both organized labor and business titans to promote corporate-aligned candidates over more progressive primary challengers.
Working for Working Americans, a super PAC funded by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, has donated $5 million. The Laborers’ International Union of North America’s super PAC has given $1.5 million. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ political action committee has chipped in $1.3 million. SMP has also received big donations from groups affiliated with labor unions like the Service Employees International Union ($1 million), the National Association of Letter Carriers ($750,000), and Communications Workers of America ($500,000).
Overall, the top donor to SMP so far this cycle has been Democracy PAC — a super PAC that’s bankrolled by billionaire George Soros and the Fund for Policy Reform, a nonprofit funded by Soros. Democracy PAC has contributed $8.5 million to SMP.
Other donors from the financial industry include: Renaissance Technologies founder and billionaire Jim Simons ($5.5 million) and billionaire D. E. Shaw & Co. founder David E. Shaw ($1 million).
Some major donors have financial stakes in current and future legislation.
For instance: SMP received a $1 million donation from billionaire Jonathan D. Gray, an executive at Blackstone, which owns the hospital staffing chain TeamHealth. SMP also received $2 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association.
In late 2019, Schumer helped stall Senate legislation that would have kept patients from receiving “surprise medical bills,” the hefty charges that occur when they visit hospitals that are in their insurance network but are unknowingly treated by providers who are considered out-of-network.
SMP is affiliated with Majority Forward, a dark money group focused on attacking Republican Senate candidates. Majority Forward received $450,000 in 2018 from pharmacy giant CVS Health — which also owns health insurer Aetna. The group also received $300,000 from the American Health Care Association (AHCA), a trade association that represents the nursing home industry.
The Democratic primary candidates backed by the DSCC have expressed reservations about Medicare for All, arguing they believe people should be allowed to keep their private health insurance if they want it. Many of the DSCC’s favored candidates do support creating a public health insurance option.
Meanwhile, the Real Estate Roundtable, a trade group for real estate investors, donated $50,000 to Majority Forward. Schumer and Senate Democrats recently helped Republicans unanimously pass pandemic relief legislation that included a special, little-noticed provision that amounted to $170 billion worth of new tax breaks for wealthy real estate investors.
In addition to the Colorado race, SMP has waded into at least three other Senate primaries this year.
In North Carolina, SMP funded Carolina Blue, a super PAC that spent $4.5 million to help veteran and former state senator Cal Cunningham win the primary in March. Cunningham handily defeated his chief opponent, state senator Erica D. Smith, who was running to his left. (Republicans, for their part, also tried to influence the primary, spending $2.7 million to boost Smith.)
In Iowa, SMP spent nearly $7 million to promote real estate developer Theresa Greenfield. She easily bested her two primary opponents, including progressive Kimberly Graham, who campaigned in support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
SMP has already spent more than $2 million in Maine, including nearly $500,000 to promote House speaker Sara Gideon in the Democratic primary. Some of the group’s advertising against Republican senator Susan Collins was also designed to boost Gideon.
On Tuesday, Gideon won the primary decisively, defeating two candidates, including Betsy Sweet, a former lobbyist for progressive advocacy groups who supported the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.