Heading into the 2018 midterms, with Democrats hoping to take back the House of Representatives and even make a run at the Senate, the party has spent more than $2 million worth of campaign resources on payments to Hillary Clinton’s new group, Onward Together, according to Federal Election Commission filings and interviews with people familiar with the payments.
The Democratic National Committee is paying $1.65 million for access to the email list, voter data, and software produced by Hillary for America during the 2016 presidential campaign, Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson for the DNC, told The Intercept. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has paid more than $700,000 to rent the same email list.
Clinton is legally entitled to rent her list to the party, rather than hand it over as a gift, but in 2015, Barack Obama gave his email list, valued at $1,942,640, to the DNC as an in-kind contribution. In 2013 and 2014, OFA had similarly made in-kind contributions exceeding $3.4 million for uses of the list that cycle.
Obama’s list was at one point considered to be the most valuable in politics and raised more than twice as much money for the 2012 Obama campaign as Clinton’s did for hers in 2016. The DNC agreement with the Clinton campaign calls on the debt-ridden organization to fork the money over to an entity of Clinton’s choosing, which wound up being Onward Together, the operation she formed after her campaign ceased to exist.
Former DNC Chair Donna Brazile told The Intercept the deal was the result of “tough negotiations between the Clinton campaign and the DNC. I wanted to bring back our assets. I wanted to get as much from them as they got from us,” she said. “Under the terms I worked out, we had to pay quarterly for items that the DNC acquired. The final payment would have been in February of this year.”
The DNC announced in April 2017 that Clinton had turned over her email list and related data and tools as an in-kind contribution to the party, with no suggestion that payments would later be made for it.
“[P]utting the DNC on a strong footing is something that she’s been very focused on since the campaign, when she set out to leave the DNC in the black and did so,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill at the time. “But in addition to a strong financial footing, sharing campaign data and resources is something she views as critical to electing Democrats in 2017, 2018 and beyond. It is an important and unprecedented step toward a strong, unified Democratic Party going forward.” Merrill did not respond to a request for comment.
Any negotiation between the DNC and the Clinton campaign would itself be fraught, given the arrangement that gave the Clinton campaign a significant say over DNC finances and staffing.
Hinojosa said that Perez, facing financial difficulties upon arriving at the DNC, renegotiated the payment schedule, putting off the payments until 2018, stretching them until October of this year and redirecting them, at the Clinton campaign’s request, to Onward Together.
According to FEC filings, the DNC has made three payments to Onward Together between January and February, adding up to $570,000; another payment of $135,000 was made in March, bringing the total to $705,000. The full $1.65 million will be paid out by October of this year, Hinojosa said. “This direct investment and in-kind contribution has helped the DNC raise a total of over $30 million via grassroots donation channels since obtaining these lists, which means this investment has more than covered the cost of the lists,” she said.
Onward Together, a dark money group dedicated to “advancing the vision that earned nearly 66 million votes in the last election,” officially launched in May 2017. On March 3, 2017, HFA turned over its materials to the DNC, and the transfer was registered in FEC files as an in-kind contribution. But just under a year later, on January 8, the money began to flow to Onward Together. The DCCC, which is contesting scores of expensive races around the country, has pumped more than $700,000 toward Onward Together in recent months, FEC records show.
Onward Together has focused largely on supporting other progressive organizations. Emails it sends to its list tend to generally do fundraising for groups that it supports, among them Alliance for Youth Action, Run for Something, Arena Summit, iVote Fund, Latino Victory, Color of Change, Emerge America, Indivisible, Collective PAC, Voto Latino, and Swing Left.
The DCCC has made four payments adding up to $710,000 between December 2017 and February 2018, FEC filings show. The DCCC did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite Obama’s willingness to gift the DNC with his email list, he is not seen as a savior within the building. After he was elected in 2008, he turned his campaign organization, Organizing for Action, into a parallel DNC, starving the real one of funds. During that time, if a party committee such as the DCCC wanted access to OFA, it had to rent it. When he finally turned the OFA list over to the DNC in 2015, it had been battered like a rental car, and the organization was a shell of itself, mismanaged and neglected to the brink of insolvency. It was in that context that the party committee struck up its secret deal with the Clinton campaign to salvage itself — setting off the charges of favoritism in the 2016 campaign that continue to dog the party today.
The 2016 election left the DNC in shambles, with the organization struggling to attract new donors — evidently despite the HFA assets. It has been reporting disappointing fundraising figures for well over a year. In 2017, the DNC managed to raise roughly $67 million in comparison to the RNC’s $125 million, according to its latest FEC filings.
The DNC has taken out $1,700,000 in loans since January 2017, roughly equal to the amount it owes the Clinton campaign, bringing its debt burden to $6.6 million with just $10,093,347 cash on hand. (The RNC has $42,442,531 and no debt.). The Clinton campaign, following a secret August 2015 memo of understanding, would have had full visibility into the DNC balance sheet.
Republican National Committee spokesperson Rick Gorka recently told Fox News that Hillary Clinton will continue to be a target for Republicans’ strategy in the 2018 midterms. The DNC recently announced that the former secretary of state would be headlining a fundraiser next month in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Clinton’s willingness to turn her email list over has been flagged as evidence of her commitment to the Democratic Party, often as a counterpoint to the refusal of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to do the same. Sanders has argued that the DNC would misuse the list, spamming it with off-message entreaties that would do net damage to the goal of building progressive power.
A joint fundraising agreement she had struck up with the DNC during the campaign was hailed as evidence of her commitment to build the party’s infrastructure. Politico later revealed that the money she raised jointly with the DNC through the Hillary Victory Fund was almost exclusively going to her campaign, with little left over for the state parties. Onward Together has continued using the list for its own purposes, even, in one case, when that may conflict with the DNC. In April, she sent her list a request for people to pay $10,000 to join the Onward Together Leadership Council, which would be hosting an event on April 30 in New York City. That same day, Tom Perez planned to host a DNC event.
Hillary for America did not respond to requests for comment. Corey Ciorciari, a former Clinton aide, tweeted on Saturday that the sale of lists is “routine,” and noted that Clinton does not take a salary from Onward Together.
Meanwhile, Perez has been working to rebuild the state parties after years of neglect under Obama. He’s implemented a costly “every ZIP code” strategy consisting of $10,000 monthly payments to the state parties and additional funds through a “resistance summer” program in 2017. The centerpiece of this renewed effort, however, is a competitive $10 million grant program known as the “State Party Innovation Fund.”
As one might expect, the DNC’s financial troubles have hobbled the fund’s payout process to approved state parties, making it frustratingly slow and complicated for state leaders.
“We have not had time to apply yet,” Nancy Worley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, told us in an email noting that the money and resources the Alabama party gets from the DNC does not go very far. “We use that for our two full-time employees and a few other program expenditures.”
Don Fowler, a DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee and at-large member who previously served as chair of the DNC and the South Carolina Democratic Party, cautioned that the lack of adequate funding could be devastating to the party’s electoral prospects. “The state parties in most of these states that continually vote for Republicans, they don’t have either the money or the talent to build a party in a systematic way,” he explained. “You have to have financial backing, people who know how to do these things, and you don’t know how to do these things just because you want to do them.”
Update: April 25, 2017
This story was updated to include additional comments from Hinojosa.