ANALYSIS — Staring in the face of competitive reelection races, more than two dozen vulnerable House Democrats are wrestling with whether to keep campaign contributions sent to them by their colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Considering Ocasio-Cortez has become a poster child for the most progressive elements of the Democratic Party, giving back her cash seems like the most obvious move. But those Democrats could embrace a strategy utilized by a vulnerable Republican more than a decade ago and use the money as part of a defense against inevitable GOP attacks.
Ocasio-Cortez sent $5,000 contributions from her Courage to Change leadership PAC to more than two dozen House Democrats, as first reported by Politico. Thus far, at least five of them have either returned or rejected the money, including Reps. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia.
The contributions have become an issue, not just because Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most polarizing political figures in politics today, but because the cash came largely as a surprise, and with help from wire transfer information provided by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The good faith effort by the congresswoman to help her party keep control of the House also put some of her colleagues in a difficult political position because of their districts. Many of these Democrats need to maintain moderate or independent images to survive; being connected to AOC isn’t helpful and her contributions are made-for-TV-ad fodder.
In 2006, Republican Dave Reichert was a survivor in Washington’s competitive 8th District. He won reelection 51 percent to 49 percent in a cycle in which his party lost 30 seats and the House majority. Democrats planned to finish the job in 2008 and continue to use unpopular President George W. Bush to drag down the congressman.
Instead of running as fast and as far away from Bush as possible, Reichert invited the president to his district for a fundraiser. Reichert and his team decided Democrats were going to try to couple him with Bush anyway, so he might as well collect as much money as possible early in the cycle to defend himself.
“There is no downside,” former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said at the time, according to a 2007 Associated Press story carried by KOMO News. “The opposition already has plenty of video of the president and Dave Reichert getting off Air Force One and would use it in ads even if the president didn’t come out again.”
“The president of the United States is an amazing fundraiser, and the race will cost a lot of money. And he certainly energizes the base,” Vance said.
Reichert raised more than $500,000 from the Bush event and spent the next year fending off Democratic attacks. In 2008, with Barack Obama at the top of the ballot and carrying the district by 14 points, Reichert won reelection by 6 points against the same opponent he barely beat two years earlier.
It’s clear that at least some of the recipients of Ocasio-Cortez’s cash are skeptical that a similar strategy will help them win their own races.
One significant difference between Reichert’s situation then and the Frontline Democrats now is the size of the contribution connected to the polarizing entity. Five thousand dollars from one person is a drop in the bucket compared to Reichert raising approximately half a million dollars from numerous donors at an event. That was close to one-fifth of his fundraising for that entire cycle, while quality vulnerable incumbents now raise that much before lunch each day.
To put it another way, “The problem with tainted money is there t’aint enough,” in words attributed to Salvation Army founder William Booth. In this case, Democrats will get all the grief for AOC, without the benefit of a huge influx of cash. It doesn’t seem likely a vulnerable incumbent would go full Reichert and invite AOC to host a fundraiser, but that would make it more analogous.
While returning the contribution won’t stop the GOP attacks, the gesture could still be significant.
“It’s more complicated than the ads,” according to one strategist connected to a Frontline Democrat. Even a small amount of cash could jeopardize fragile relationships incumbents have built with local leaders and constituents who are skeptical of the national Democratic Party. A contribution is a direct link to AOC and can create the appearance that the two members are aligned more closely on policy.
But make no mistake, the ads are coming. Republicans are going to tie AOC to Democratic members and candidates regardless of whether they get money from her or reject it. In 2020, Republicans spent more than $100 million on more than 200,000 TV ads featuring Ocasio-Cortez, according to data from Kantar/CMAG. And there’s nothing about the 2020 results, when Republicans gained more than a dozen seats, that would cause the GOP to reconsider their ad strategy.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.