The story has been updated to reflect additional comments.
In the immediate aftermath of Doug Jones’ shock victory in the Alabama Senate race, the Democratic National Committee tried to take no small amount of credit. Indeed, it took $1 million worth of credit.
The truth is more complicated.
After Jones defeated Republican and accused pedophile Roy Moore, the DNC said it had quietly spent $1 million constructing a voter-outreach effort for the Democrat, including an extensive campaign of text messages, phone calls, and door-knockers.
Now, faced with documentation that questions the claim, DNC officials say the committee spent only $250,000 of its own money on the race, cash that funded more than two dozen staffers on the ground in the state who, among other things, conducted extensive outreach to African-American voters.
The rest – nearly three-quarters of the total funds originally claimed – was not a direct injection of DNC money but instead cash the DNC raised on behalf of Jones through email solicitations.
Counting that kind of assistance as funds spent is unusual, according to Democrats familiar with campaign fundraising; political groups typically make clear distinctions between the money they raise for a candidate and the money they spend backing a candidate.
“Disingenuous would not be too strong a word for it,” said one Democratic strategist, echoing the sentiment of many operatives who have worked on dozens of campaigns. That strategist said the revelation would prompt "another round of eye-rolling about the DNC."
DNC officials argue that raising money directly for a candidate and spending out of the committee’s coffers is a distinction without difference, with the money — regardless of origin — making a crucial difference in Jones’ razor-thin victory.
DNC officials also argued that the direct fundraising it did for the Jones campaign was an innovative approach, one the party will adopt elsewhere because it gives campaigns an efficient, direct infusion of cash.
The tactic was also used in early 2017, during a special House race in Georgia to help Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff.
“For the first time in its history, the DNC used its email list for split fundraising to directly raise money for and invest in campaigns across the country in 2017,” said Michael Tyler, DNC spokesman. “While the RNC cut blank checks for an accused child molester, we’re proud that tens of thousands of Americans contributed $5 and $10 at a time to fund the Doug Jones campaign’s organizing efforts. That’s how campaigns operate in the 21st century and that’s how we’ll propel Democrats to victory in 2018.”
After the story’s publication, a host of digital fundraisers and other party strategists — especially those who have worked in progressive politics — defended the DNC, saying its approach was bold and worthy of praise.
The revelation comes at a difficult time for the DNC, which has struggled to raise money over the last year despite a spike in fundraising for many other liberal and progressive groups. The DNC had $6.5 million on hand to start the year after raising $67 million in 2017. (The Republican National Committee, in contrast, raised almost $133 million last year and had nearly $39 million on hand.)
The DNC’s CEO, Jess O’Connell, also unexpectedly stepped down this week, raising questions about senior leadership at a committee that fired its finance director in November.
In reports filed with the Federal Election Commission this week, the DNC showed $87,000 in itemized coordinated expenses from December for the Alabama Senate race, including payments to political firms that specialized in African-American voter outreach. DNC officials say it will show another $163,000 in coordinated spending in subsequent reports, as soon as the committee is billed for services it retained.
Because the money it raised for the Jones campaign never passed through the committee itself, the DNC won’t have to report the $679,000 it said it raised with email fundraising solicitations.
DNC officials say the money they raised for Jones’ campaign, all of it coming late in the race, was funneled directly to on-the-ground voter outreach efforts, similar to the effort the committee had directly invested in. Top DNC officials say they had also embedded themselves with the Jones campaign, helping everything from media relations to political research.
In an email to reporters after Jones’ victory, the DNC said it “invested nearly $1 million in the Doug Jones for Senate campaign in organizing efforts, millennial and African-American engagement, mobilization and voter contact.”
And on Thursday, the DNC pointed to Jones’ praise of the committee after his victory, in which he called the group “very helpful” and said it “provided the support that we needed.”
“They had targeted GOTV efforts that they paid for that was helpful,” Giles Perkins, Jones’ campaign manager, said in an interview.
Asked if he thought the criticism of the DNC was fair, Perkins said the party should focus on something else.
“We won the race, we have a lot to celebrate, and we need to move forward and look at some other place we can win,” Perkins said.
The DNC has struggled to find its footing since Tom Perez became chairman in February 2017 after years of neglect and mismanagement during President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House.
The committee and its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, collided with a firestorm of criticism during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, when the release on WikiLeaks of hacked emails from committee staffers called into question the group’s official neutrality in the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The emails led to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation, and, nearly two years later, many Sanders supporters remain angry at the DNC.
The rift with the party’s progressive base has contributed to the group’s problems since Perez took over, after he won a competitive race for the chairmanship over liberal favorite Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota.
The DNC and Perez did receive a lift in November with the dual victories of Democratic gubernatorial nominees Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey, races the committee received praise for investing in.
Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty