Politics

Crowley’s Defeat Spotlights Rising Anti-Corporate Money Message

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of dozens of Democratic candidates rejecting corporate PAC money

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley lost his primary in New York’s 14th District on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made rejecting corporate donations a centerpiece of her winning campaign to unseat a top House Democrat. But the message isn’t just resonating in liberal areas like New York City — it also worked for Conor Lamb

The Pennsylvania Democrat highlighted his pledge to reject corporate PAC money in his first television ad in the special election earlier this year, where he pulled off an upset in a district President Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

And on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party when she defeated House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th District.

“This race is about people versus money,” she said in a video highlighting her campaign. “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”

Watch: Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat

‘Winning message’

That both candidates in such different districts ran successfully on that message is a sign that it resonates with voters, said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for End Citizens United, which backs candidates who support overhauling campaign finance laws.

“Voters, Americans, clearly are fed up with Washington and they believe that the root of the problem is the money in politics,” Bozzi said. “And they believe that rightfully so.”

Money in politics tied with racism and discrimination as the top issues rankling American democracy, in a recent national survey conducted by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

End Citizens United had endorsed Crowley in the race, given his positions on campaign finance proposals. But Bozzi said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was a sign that rejecting corporate PAC money was a winning strategy.

“She demonstrated that candidates can do more than talk about fixing the system, and they can show real leadership,” Bozzi said. “And that voters will react to that.”

A Democratic strategist called it “absolutely a winning message” for party candidates. 

“No mistake, you see people who are in primaries and general elections talking about that,” the strategist said.

End Citizens United has tracked more than 140 congressional candidates this cycle, nearly all Democrats, who have promised not to accept political donations form corporations. The group saw an exponential increase from 2016 in candidates in competitive races taking that position.

Last cycle, three of the 41 Democratic candidates in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for strong challengers pledged not to accept corporate money. This cycle, 31 of the 54 candidates have made the same promise.

These candidates are in some of the most competitive races in the country. So their rejection of corporate money signals they believe it will be a winning message, even in Republican-leaning districts like Lamb’s.

In the Pennsylvania special election, one in five respondents to an End Citizens United poll said Lamb’s rejection of corporate PAC money was the main reason they supported him. His stance on corporate money was his second most popular position behind his support for Medicare and Social Security.

‘Rigged system’

Bozzi suggested the increase in candidates rejecting corporate money could be attributed to rhetoric from both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders from the 2016 presidential election. They both decried a “rigged system,” which resonated with voters.

Bozzi also said voters have become more aware of the influence of corporations, and how that influence could affect the way Congress addresses rising prescription drug prices, financial scandals and gun violence.

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is running for Senate in Texas, is rejecting all PAC money. He has still been able to outraise Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in recent fundraising quarters.

O’Rourke said  Wednesday that voters’ response to rejecting political money should have both sides rethinking how they fundraise.

“I think people know that this is rigged,” O’Rourke said off the House floor, gesturing with his thumb toward the chamber. “They know it’s rigged towards the PACs and corporations and special interests. And by not taking that money you show people you’re listening for them and not the corporations. I think that’s powerful.”

Ocasio-Cortez made corporate donations a central theme of her argument against Crowley, saying she could more effectively combat rising health care costs and home prices because she wasn’t funded by those industries.

Bozzi acknowledged that rejecting corporate donations may be more difficult for incumbents. Sitting lawmakers benefit from those political donations at a time when House campaigns cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But he hoped the new wave of candidates rejecting corporate money could change that dynamic.

“When they’re elected, they’ll be incumbents and they’ll set the tone,” Bozzi said. “It’s going to force a conversation in Congress among members about how they raise money.”

Simone Pathé contributed to this report. 

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