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In 2017, I started Airlift, which serves as a kind of Consumer Reports for political giving. It was sparked by the endless barrage of fundraising emails I was getting that read like hostage notes. I saw the same hyperbolic language and Threat Level RED graphics across a number of campaigns. I had a strong feeling that they were coming from the same boiler room because they all read and looked the same. But I didn’t have any evidence.

Well I just found Exhibit A. In a scathing investigative piece in the Washington Post, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy find the boiler room and take us inside.

The solicitations piled into voters’ email accounts — sometimes multiple times a day. And they carried alarming messages, often in blaring capital letters.

“We’re on the verge of BANKRUPTCY.”

“Our bank account is ALMOST EMPTY!”

“Trump is INCHES away from firing Robert Mueller.”

The catastrophic language yielded a fundraising bonanza for clients of Mothership Strategies, a little-known and relatively new digital consulting firm that raked in tens of millions of dollars from a tide of small donations that flowed to Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections.

Mothership is now under fire for its “aggressive and misleading tactics.” Their fees, in some cases double the industry average, are built on exaggerating fears and eroding the trust of small donors. According to federal records, Mothership raised a total of $150 million in the 2018 cycle, and kept $35 million of that in fees.

Mothership’s first client was John Ossoff, for whom they raised $31 million. Most of that went to their media pals to spend on television advertising. David Broockman, a professor at Stanford, has reviewed every bit of serious research that’s out there. His conclusion: the effectiveness of political TV advertising is close to zero.

For comparison, Lucy McBath just won that same Georgia Congressional seat from Karen Handel, who beat Ossoff. McBath’s total budget was under $3 million. And she didn’t run as a middle of the road candidate. 

Mothership is soaking small donors, wasting a lot of money, and making out like bandits. But who says there’s no honor among thieves? They’re also sharing the spoils with their ex-colleagues and friends, many of whom they met at their previous employer, the DCCC. 

About a quarter of the payments that flowed to Mothership during the midterm elections came not from campaigns, but from political entities run by operatives with whom the Mothership founders have personal and professional ties.

Believing that there had to be an alternative to this barrage of misleading and threatening emails, I decided to go down a different path. Working with a team out of my local Indivisible group, we got amazing help from Tides Advocacy and the Movement Voter Project to start our own fundraising site at Airlift.fund. We now work in concert with other donor groups who believe that your money doesn’t have to go through DC to get to Macon or Milwaukee.

Our research showed that giving to effective local grassroots groups is much more powerful than directly funding candidates or party organizations. Airlift funds a seriously vetted collection of groups fighting for issues that motivate young and non-white people. I call these people “natural born Democrats,” because if you can get them to the polls, they will overwhelmingly vote Democratic. These are the people who voted for Obama and stayed home in 2016. These are the people who came back in 2018! 

The groups we fund work neighbor-to-neighbor, all year long. So instead of parachuting people into battleground states and districts, we support local feet on the street. In the run up to elections, they already have deep relationships with unlikely voters and know what it takes to get them to the polls. If you would like to get more info on how it works, go to Airlift.fund.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Daily Kos.

Mothership Strategies raises $31 million, loses an election, and proves that scare tactics work on small donors.

Mothership Strategies raises $31 million, loses an election, and proves that scare tactics work on small donors.

Suz Lipman