During the 2019-2020 election cycle, Sacramento County residents donated a surprising $2.3 million at the federal level to Progressive candidates, causes and political action committee (PACs). However Sacto Politico’s exclusive analysis of Federal Election Commission data shows little of that money stayed local to support area Progressive campaigns.
The $2.3 million does not include donations to candidates at the state and local levels, but it refutes a long-held view that the Sacramento area lacks a sufficient fundraising base needed for Progressive bids against corporate- and business-backed incumbents. But interviews with local Progressive donors and Progressive activists showed these groups to be largely unaware of each other.
“It’s a big number, and that does surprise me,” said Zima Creason, a board member with the San Juan Unified School District and delegate to both the county and state Democratic Party. “It doesn’t surprise me that people are looking to make change, but it appears we need to do a better job connecting the dots and helping put donors and local candidates together.”
The Sacto Politico found dozens of examples of area Progressives giving between $10,000 and $80,000 at the federal level in the last election cycle. This included one Progressive in Rancho Cordova who with his wife gave more than $10,000 to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Justice Democrats PAC, and the Progressive Congressional Caucus, but admitted no local campaigns came across his radar.
“The local mainstream media probably has something to do with it. They are not very friendly to Progressives,” he said. “If I didn’t hear about a Progressive in the national media, then I wouldn’t hear of them at all.”
Concurring with this was a Sacramento engineer whose 2020 giving included to Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Julian Castro and the Stop Republicans PAC: “I think the most ‘local’ Progressive candidate I heard about was the individual who challenged Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco.”
All donors interviewed were granted anonymity to minimize unwanted solicitations. This included a retired Progressive in Doris Matsui’s 6th Congressional District who gave just over $20,000 last cycle – but again to no one locally. She shared, “I actually haven’t donated to anyone locally in a long time. I’m not sure if I have even been asked or was needed.”
Another five-figure donor said he just assumed the lack of visibility of the local Progressive movement meant it is “probably nascent and not fully fledged.”
The largest part of the $2.3 million Sacramento County residents gave at the federal level went to 2020 presidential candidates. This was led by Bernie Sanders ($1.3 million) and Elizabeth Warren (more than $600,000). Together Sanders and Warren appeared on 46.1% of all 2020 Democratic presidential primary ballots cast in the county.
The combined $2.3 million also represents just a portion of the total amount given by area Progressives to campaigns outside Sacramento County. The donation patterns of many large donors in the $10,000 to $80,000 range show they also gave to non-Progressive Democrats in the general election races against Republicans. This included support for Joe Biden, in California Congressional races in swing districts, and in many U.S. Senate contests including the Georgia runoffs.
Interestingly, donations to Democrats in several of the top Senate races ended up not being needed. The Senate campaigns of Sara Gideon (Maine), Amy McGrath (Kentucky), John Hickenlooper (Colorado) and Jamie Harrison (South Carolina) combined for nearly $22 million in unspent campaign cash. Of this group, only Hickenlooper won his race. Even Ocasio-Cortez finished with a $3.1 million surplus.
Looking ahead, most local donors interviewed said they hope to invest more of their donations in local Progressive campaigns provided they hear about them. The retired voter in Matsui’s Congressional district said she was keen on backing a Progressive challenge to the establishment incumbent Matsui.
“I am very interested if someone could actually beat her and be more left of center,” she said. “I will also be watching Texas and Florida closely. I would love to see those states slide Democratic like Stacy Abrams did in Georgia.”
On the organizational side, Creason said creating awareness for all the under-the-radar local giving is a necessary first step.
As executive director of the California EDGE Coalition, a statewide policy organization that advocates on workforce development and economic mobility issues, she understands how to build coalitions. Next, she would recommend the creation of a formal mechanism to bridge the chasym of mutual awareness.
“Off the cuff, we probably need to create a mixed work group with donors, electeds and local groups. We can then define what our priorities and goals are, and create a work plan behind each priority and goal,” she said. “Then together, we can strategize how to put it into action because I don’t think any one group can do that on their own.”