Democratic fundraiser taps Silicon Valley, online donors amid party friction

Cooper Teboe works with progressives and the big-money donors they deride

Political consultant Cooper Teboe, right,  walks with California Rep. Ro Khanna in January.  (Christie Hemm Klok/Courtesy Cooper Teboe)
Political consultant Cooper Teboe, right, walks with California Rep. Ro Khanna in January. (Christie Hemm Klok/Courtesy Cooper Teboe)
Posted July 23, 2020 at 6:00am

A split that erupted last year within the Democratic Party inspired Cooper Teboe, a political operative who serves as campaign manager and finance director for Rep. Ro Khanna, to launch his own firm. 

Teboe officially opened his Silicon Valley-based shop, CDT Strategies, in January, months after reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would not work directly with consultants who helped unseat the party’s incumbents in primaries. Teboe said he started his business with the goal of helping progressive candidates, including those working against sitting members. 

As the party grapples with the often competing influences of wealthy donors and grassroots activists, Teboe offers an interesting window into a business and political model that combines both. Not only is he working for Khanna, a California Democrat and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who himself unseated an incumbent Democrat in 2016, but he’s also consulting for a vulnerable Senate incumbent facing a primary challenge. And, even though the party’s progressive wing derides big money in politics, Teboe advises major donors where to plop their campaign cash — and he works for a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

Democrats’ opposition to President Donald Trump seems to blur internal divisions in the party’s struggle over a policy vision for the future, at least in 2020, according to Teboe. 

“Now, both sides of that ideological divide within the Democratic Party have put their differences aside in order to remove Trump from office, but I do think that the more progressive side of things does view Biden as a bridge to a progressive future,” said Teboe, who is 28. “I would actually say that in some ways we’ve got to thank Donald Trump for uniting the different arms of the Democratic Party.”  

In addition to Khanna, who reported hauling in about $475,000 for the second fundraising quarter of this year, Teboe’s clients include Sen. Edward J. Markey, who faces stiff primary competition from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III in Massachusetts. Teboe also works for Democratic candidate J.D. Scholten, who is running in Iowa’s 4th District (where Rep. Steve King lost his primary to fellow Republican Randy Feenstra).  

Teboe, a former Capitol Hill aide and onetime Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staffer, serves on the finance committees for the Arizona and Wisconsin Democratic parties. He previously worked for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Sara Gideon, who is challenging GOP Sen. Susan Collins in Maine. 

Primary competition

Teboe volunteered to help raise money for Marie Newman, a more liberal challenger who beat Rep. Daniel Lipinski in a March Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3rd District. Lipinski is among the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. During her campaign, Newman endorsed “Medicare for All,” a signature stance of the party’s left wing. 

“In order to dislodge an incumbent, you have to do a lot of fundraising,” Newman told CQ Roll Call. “I don’t accept corporate or lobbyist money. Cooper was integral in highlighting my race to people under 35 who might give at a small-dollar amount.” She said her average donation amount is about $41. 

“Cooper is one of the hardest-working, lovely and brightest minds we have in politics,” added Newman, a former advertising agency executive and consultant who founded the nonprofit organization “Team Up To Stop Bullying.” 

Teboe sees that type of small-dollar, online money-raising as the way going forward, and the reliance on small-dollar donors has helped Democrats raise eye-popping sums even during the coronavirus pandemic. Teboe thought progressive donating could tank because of COVID-19, but instead he says he finds high engagement, from Silicon Valley donors to small contributors 

“I think small dollar and email lists and digital programs are very much the future of fundraising,” he said. 

A fundraising email from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who beat an incumbent in a 2018 primary, can haul in upward of $20,000, as one did on behalf of Markey, Teboe said. 

Liberal primary challengers, he added, may not often have the support of the party’s apparatus, but “they gain grassroots activism and grassroots money because nothing fires up the very left of our party like fighting against the establishment.”

Donor dollars

Part of Teboe’s business is advising high-dollar donors, who hail mostly from his Silicon Valley base, about which campaigns to invest in, he said. 

“I’m only seeing them over Zoom, but I’ve literally never seen them more energized,” Teboe said. 

Big donors will come looking for where to send $50,000 or even $1 million, he said. Teboe typically advises people to donate directly to campaigns, and he’s recommended such candidates as Gideon in Maine, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is challenging Republican Sen. Steve Daines. He says he’s also steered donors to the campaigns of Mark Kelly, the Democrat running against Arizona Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is taking on Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina. 

Senate and House races in Iowa, South Carolina, Texas, Kentucky and Florida are also on his list, he said.  

Herschel Fink, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said that Teboe, who is not paid for his role with the party, has “been trying to spread the word in Silicon Valley how important Arizona is if we’re going to take back the White House and take back the Senate, and trying to get folks to buy into that, and we appreciate it.”

The politics of policy 

The agenda of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, on whose campaign Khanna served as a national co-chairman, has energized progressives, especially of Teboe’s generation, the fundraiser said. 

“I’m 28 and run a political consulting firm, and buying a house isn’t something I can think about,” Teboe said. “We are finally waking up to the fact that we have gotten a raw end of the deal.”

They view the need to address energy and climate policy, get corporate money out of politics and overhaul the criminal justice system as “the issues of our time,” he said.  

But the path to those matters involves urging support for the pro-Biden super PAC, Unite the Country. Teboe won’t disclose the names of his clientele, but some of Unite the Country’s megadonors include Ronald Conway, founder of the venture capital firm SV Angel, and Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn, according to federal election disclosures

“He’s terrific. He’s focusing on Northern California for us,” Unite the Country’s Julianna Smoot said. “You have to be willing to call anybody and then follow up and figure out who that target, the donor, wants to hear from.”

“Fundraisers, they’re the ones who pretty much lay out the puzzle and have to fill it in,” she continued. “Cooper’s smart. He knows the tech donors out in Silicon Valley and what they care about.”