Senate Candidate Refuses To Raise Money, And Still Thinks He Can Win

What happens when a top Senate candidate in a competitive race vows to stop fundraising? Florida Rep. David Jolly is going to find out.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Sure the nation’s lawmakers complain about the busy schedule of being an elected official, but don’t let that fool you into offering them any pity: Most of their energy is spent begging people for money.

One lawmaker—who happens to be a clean cut, former lobbyist—wants to change that by banning every federal office holder from soliciting donations. That Republican, Rep. David Jolly, is also running for the pivotal Senate seat Marco Rubio is vacating in Florida.

The fate of Mitch McConnell’s Majority Leader status could hinge on this race where in the early stages Jolly appears to be on top of a three-way GOP race. And Jolly has vowed not to ask for cash personally this election cycle, which means he’s handicapping the GOP right out of the gates.

Florida’s one of the most expensive states to run in, and Jolly’s move—or political stunt—will be a test case for whether individual candidates can win while protesting the world of Washington fundraising or whether they need to fall in line to stay in office.

Jolly’s new Stop Act would free up the portfolios of federal officials by making it illegal for them to shake people down for money. Jolly’s putting his money where his mouth is and has pledged to not personally ask for a cent this election cycle, which could put his party in a bind because he’s the presumed frontrunner in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the Senate.

“What I’m putting on the line is my existing seat, and the fact that I’m doing this as the frontrunner for the United States Senate in the 3rd largest state in the country. I’m peeling the curtain back now, and saying I’m actually going to use the resources I have in Congress to try to introduce legislation to fix this,” Jolly said in frustration.

Jolly’s move is sure to anger the Republican establishment sitting in their smoke-filled rooms at or near the Capitol, because Florida’s Senate seat is up for grabs.

Sure, under his proposal and pledge to voters Jolly’s surrogates can raise money for him, but what he’s unveiling publicly today prohibits him and other lawmakers from asking for cash directly in order to force lawmakers to, well, actually make laws.

Jolly isn’t new to Washington, but he is new to elected office since winning a special election in 2014. There’s one part of the job he particularly hates: dialing for dollars.

“You run for office based on some core convictions, based on an agenda you want to get done, and you’re immediately immersed in this system where the number one expectation is to spend your time raising money,” Jolly told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview where he previewed the legislation.

The slimey D.C. fundraising culture is familiar to Jolly. The attorney interned on the Hill before he became one of those much-decried Washington lobbyists where he hedged his bets and donated to both Democrats and Republicans.

Jolly also served as Chief of Staff to former Congressman Bill Young—whose seat he now occupies. Young, now deceased, was the longest-serving Republican in history at the time of his death. He was also the top appropriator for a slew of years at the end of his decades-long career. Jolly’s race to replace Young election attracted big money as Democrats looked at the purple district as a potential pickup. Between his personal fundraising and what national Republicans dropped, he was sent to Washington for a cool $6.3 million. Democrats didn’t sit on the sidelines either: They dropped another $6.4 million on their candidate, only to lose by a couple points.

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While Jolly wasn’t afraid of corporate sponsorship while running—or while as a Washington lobbyist—he maintains his perspective on fundraising changed once he formally took the oath of office.

“As a first-time candidate, who was not a sitting member for Congress, who had the time to run a full-time campaign and fundraise, I demonstrated I could do that,” Jolly said. “And the moment I got to Congress I was told I had to double down and do even more of it. That was a very different scenario, because now I’m a sitting member of Congress holding the public trust.”

If Jolly truly believes what he’s peddling, he’s one of the few power brokers in the nation’s capital to adhere to the logic.

Party leaders coach new lawmakers into spending more than half of their time raising money. During the freshmen orientation session for House Democrats after the last presidential election, the Huffington Post got a copy of a PowerPoint that explicitly urged lawmakers to spend more than five hours a day fundraising while spending just two hours a day on legislative duties.

Of course lawmakers can’t use their federal offices to solicit campaign cash, but the open secret in Washington is that mere feet away from the Capitol grounds are offices that serve as phone banks for Republicans and Democrats alike. Professional “fundraisers” coach lawmakers on who to call and provide them details on who they’re chatting with so they can pretend to warmly remember their last fundraising plea.

“It’s hard for individual people to unilaterally disarm, which is actually what Jolly’s doing,” said Kyle Kondik, who tracks campaigns for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He’s potentially making it less likely he maximizes the amount of money he raises, if he does this pledge and sticks with it.”

Jolly doesn’t seem to mind that he’s going into unchartered territory. “Jolly is not universally respected amongst Washington Republican campaign operatives,” said Kondik of Jolly’s independent streak. “Maybe that’s not necessarily a handicap, but it’s the reality.”

The proposal also wouldn’t do anything to change the post-Citizens United world where tens of millions of dollars now secretly flow to Super PACS. It also wouldn’t prohibit lawmakers from attending fundraisers; it would merely make it so they can’t make the fundraising pitch themselves.

So is Jolly hoping Super PACS will carry the water for him and float his elite status as one of 535 members of Congress? The math doesn’t seem to add up.

“You need actual real, hard money for your campaign in order to pay everybody, and also the candidates themselves get better rates on advertising than the Super PACS do,” Kondik argues. “You can’t really outsource your campaign to a Super PAC.”

That’s why Jolly maintains his bill isn’t campaign finance reform; it’s congressional reform.

“The notion here is to get the member of Congress back to work. We can’t have a part-time Congress in a full-time world,” Jolly said before adding that it would also help clean up the nefarious optics that surround the glitzy world of Washington fundraising circles. “It removes any appearance or suspicion of any impropriety with the member of Congress directly soliciting a contribution.”

The bold announcement of unilateral disarmament in the age of big-money campaigns may just be Washington politics wrapped up in a new bow. It also may prove a testing case for a new, Bernie Sanders style of politics that’s fueled on grassroots energy as opposed to back-slapping the Washington lobbyists in three-piece suits who roam the Capitol. In Jolly’s case, he seems to have a foot in both worlds.