Rep. Beto O’Rourke just shattered fundraising records, and with millions of dollars pouring into Texas amid a surprisingly competitive Senate contest, the candidates themselves aren’t the only ones trying to cash in.
Fundraisers of all political persuasion are hoping to capture a chunk of the unprecedented sums pouring into the Lone Star State for O’Rourke’s challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. And some are relying on shady means to do so.
Outspoken Democratic lawyer and potential 2020 presidential candidate Michael Avenatti on Thursday tweeted a link to Democratic donation platform ActBlue that appeared to be an O’Rourke donation page, but the fine print on the page noted that, by default, half of the money donated would go to Avenatti’s Fight PAC.
“It is pretty skeezy,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, of the fundraising tactic. “If Avenatti wanted to raise funds for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, he could just share a link to the Beto for Senate donation page. But he didn’t. Avenatti’s tweet gave viewers the impression their donation would support Beto for Senate, and given how easy it is to make a one-click donation through ActBlue, some viewers could miss the fine print disclosing that their donation would be split with Avenatti’s PAC.”
Avenatti pushed back against that criticism on Friday. He called it “complete nonsense,” adding that prominent Democrats such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris “do the same thing.” Nonetheless, he eventually deleted the donation page. “It wasn’t worth the nonsense that resulted from people that don’t understand how common this is,” he told The Daily Beast in a text message.
Indeed, he’s not the only one seeking to rake in cash on the back of Democratic enthusiasm in Texas.
Others have used the same ActBlue donation split function to lure donors with the prospect of supporting O’Rourke, only to steer the money to other candidates—or themselves. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee set up a similar page last month that asks donors to support O’Rourke’s campaign, but splits funds, unless donors specify otherwise, between O’Rourke, Nebraska House candidate Kara Eastman, and two PCCC campaign accounts.
PCCC’s page is at least more upfront about the donation distribution, and includes links to donate to O’Rourke and PCCC directly. A page created last week by the group Democrats Work for America is less so. It splits donations evenly between DWA and O’Rourke’s campaign, but only asks for donations “to power Beto O'Rourke to victory.”
An O’Rourke-centric ActBlue page for AMERICAblog Action, the political arm of a popular liberal news and activism website, is even less up-front about its donation distribution. Unlike PCCC and DWA, the page makes no mention of the group behind it beyond the drop-down menu specifying donation distributions.
Though critics have panned such pitches as underhanded, chunks of money at least go towards O’Rourke’s campaign directly, even if equal or greater sums are redirected to other groups or candidates. Other O’Rourke donor pitches, on the other hand, have used his name to solicit money that will never go towards his Senate candidacy.
“ALL GIFTS MATCHED 500% TO ELECT DEMOCRATS LIKE BETO O’ROURKE,” blared the header of a fundraising email sent on Wednesday by House Majority PAC, a leading Democratic super PAC. “We’ve reached a critical point in the Texas Senate race. It’s a TOSS UP and Beto could win!”
There’s just one problem with that pitch: as its name suggests, House Majority PAC spends on elections to the House of Representatives, not the Senate.
But the appeal of those sorts of pitches is obvious. O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers are historic; on Friday, he announced that his campaign raised $38 million in the third quarter, far surpassing the previous quarterly fundraising record, a $22 million haul by New York Senate candidate Rick Lazio in his 2000 race against Hillary Clinton.
It’s not just Democrats hoping to cash in on the Texas political gold rush. Some Republican political groups have also invoked the race in fundraising appeals despite doing little actual spending either in support of Cruz or in opposition to O’Rourke.
Revive America PAC, a Republican super PAC, has sent at least three fundraising emails since mid-September imploring donors to support Cruz’s efforts to hold his Senate seat. “Please send an emergency contribution of $25, $50, $100, or as much as you can afford to give Sen. Cruz the boost he needs to win on Election Day,” reads one sent on Tuesday. “We are in the final weeks of this critical election and every dollar counts, please don't quit on us now.”
It’s not clear how much those appeals have brought in, but according to a Revive America quarterly FEC report filed on Friday, it’s spent a total of just $2,500 in the Texas Senate race, and every penny was spent before it began sending fundraising pitches invoking the race.
Reached by phone on Friday, Bob Adams, who runs Revive America, said that number would go up. “We do have expenditures planned. Those amounts will be available when reported,” he said. Adams declined to say when the expenditures would take place or what form they would take (television, radio, direct mail, etc.).
The numbers that are already available show far more money going to Adams than to Texas. Revive America has already paid Adams’ consulting firm more than $175,000 this cycle.