'Grassroots' Justice Dems Fueled by Out-of-District Money

Candidates raised as little as 1 percent from locals

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez / Getty Images
November 4, 2019

Several candidates backed by Justice Democrats are relying on out-of-district donors in their congressional bids, receiving as little as 1 percent of their contributions from local residents, according to federal campaign records.

Texas candidate Jessica Cisneros has been one of the most high profile candidates backed by Justice Democrats, the liberal group seeking to defeat incumbents they perceive as insufficiently progressive. While Cisneros has received praise from freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), local residents appear more skeptical. She has received just $3,585 of her $190,000 (1.8 percent) in itemized contributions from inside the San Antonio district she hopes to represent.

Cisneros is not alone. Chicago Democrat Marie Newman received just 10 percent, and Columbus, Ohio candidate Morgan Harper received just 11 percent, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis.

To fill their coffers, the progressive candidates all relied on donations from distant Democratic strongholds and high-profile endorsements from the likes of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, the first elected politician to run on a Justice Democrat ticket.

Justice Democrats, a PAC launched in 2017 by a former staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), support the campaigns of progressive candidates across the country, and brand themselves as champions of grassroots campaigning that turns down dirty money. All Justice Democrats must sign on to an aggressive progressive agenda—a liberal wish list that includes abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and instituting Medicare for All—and swear off corporate PAC and lobbyist donations.

While Justice Democrats insist their campaigns are supported by "people in their community," the group's leading candidates raised much smaller proportions of their donations from their constituents than the average candidate. In-district donations during the 2018 election composed roughly 27 percent of contributions to candidates for the House of Representatives, according to Axios.

To conduct this analysis, the Washington Free Beacon added up donations from every resident living in a zip code within the congressional district. This methodology, which used Federal Elections Commission data, considerably overestimates in-district donations because zip codes often contain more than one district. Thus, real in-district contribution numbers are probably lower than the estimates.

The leading Justice Democrats candidates also raised significantly less money from their own states than the national average. Newman and Harper, who each raised more than $330,000 in total in the third quarter, raised just 33 and 15 percent, respectively, of their itemized contributions from their states. Meanwhile, the average House Democrat raised 55 percent of their donations from their home states in the 2018 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Justice Democrats have focused more on endorsements from high-profile, progressive politicians to bolster campaign coffers. Cisneros, who had the third largest fundraising haul of all Justice Democrats, bought dozens of Facebook ads to advertise the fact that presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren endorsed her campaign. The advertising push bore fruit—the Texas Democrat raised 77 percent of her total third quarter fundraising in the 21 days that followed the Warren endorsement on Sept. 9.

The top progressive candidates all invariably relied on donations from heavily Democratic states to fuel their campaign. New Yorkers and Californians consistently ranked as the top three contributors for the campaigns of Newman, Harper, and Cisneros.

Some Justice Democrats residing in wealthy blue states raised a lot of money from in-state donors, while collecting little from their possible constituents. Jamaal Bowman, a candidate running to represent a New York district that covers the northern Bronx and Westchester County, raised 64 percent of his itemized contributions from New York, but only 10 percent of his haul came from his district.

It appears that the Justice Democrats will continue to rely on high-profile endorsements and national donors to support their campaigns. Cisneros secured endorsements from progressive high profile "Squad" members Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez in October. She has already started running Facebook ads touting the latter's endorsement.