The untold story of Amy McGrath’s money

Toby Fallsgraff
8 min readFeb 23, 2022

The long-shot campaign’s digital fundraising provides a lesson for Democrats. It’s not the one you’ve been told.

A recent New Republic story by Michael Sokolove raises legitimate questions about how Democrats can be more strategic and more ethical about raising money — and ensure that a wider range of deserving candidates can benefit from the power of grassroots donations. As a movement, we face a real challenge when some candidates, like Amy McGrath, can shatter fundraising records in a long-shot race while others, perhaps in a better position to win, don’t get a fraction of the attention from the internet.

Sokolove identifies another trend in political fundraising: the prevalence of unethical practices that need to be rooted out of our politics, a case that some of the best minds in the progressive digital space echoed on Twitter. Too many campaigns (and shady PACs that pretend to be campaigns) run garbage programs and resort to tactics that amount to tricking people out of their money. Just look at the crisis Republicans are experiencing thanks to Trump’s shamelessly predatory tactics.

These are both important challenges for those of us who work in this business to confront — but the two challenges are different.

And Amy McGrath’s campaign is not an example of the latter approach. In fact, it was designed from Day One to prove that you didn’t have to run a predatory program to raise a lot of money online.

The untold story is that she succeeded at it.

I worked closely with McGrath’s team as a digital advisor in both 2018 and 2020, and one of the first things I learned was that the campaign didn’t want its message to supporters to be like other things they saw in their inbox. That was made explicit, by the candidate herself: We don’t spam people, we don’t lie to people, and we don’t abuse the trust of our supporters. Our goal from the get-go was to treat supporters with respect, give people meaningful ways to participate, and inspire people to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Amy McGrath deserves credit for insisting on that approach. Ask a digital fundraising consultant, and they’ll tell you it’s often like pulling teeth to convince a campaign to forgo the smash-and-grab model of fundraising. That’s because there’s a perception — one often espoused by big decision makers in the party — that you need to go easy on the ethics if you’re going to maximize the money.

It isn’t true. And McGrath’s campaign has the receipts to prove it. The trouble is, when you lose (and when you’re perceived to have raised “too much money”), nobody wants to hear that story. I’m telling it now because we know that the unethical and sometimes evil practices in our industry — from rampant data swapping to messages that imply your utilities are about to be shut off — aren’t going to be shamed out of existence. You have to show that they’re actually less effective than the alternative.

Here’s how Amy McGrath’s campaign did that:

She built her base the right way. It starts at the beginning of your relationship with your supporters. Fudging the rules at the outset makes you more likely to blur ethical lines later. Every person who received an email from the campaign opted in to receive those messages — something that way too many operations out there can’t say. In fact, the McGrath camp went above and beyond the ethical norm on this point. Before it launched, they wrote into the campaign’s privacy policy, against the advice of some prominent advisors, that it would never sell, trade, or give away someone’s email address without their permission. To this day, that fact still irks some Democrats who’ve inquired about renting or swapping email lists. (The answer is and always has been no.)

The campaign invested in Amy’s voice. Dating back to the 2018 campaign, we developed a habit of sending very long, sometimes pretty-quirky emails about who Amy was and why she was running — developing Amy’s personal voice to strengthen the relationship with her supporters. By the end of that first campaign, when her opponent wasn’t Mitch McConnell, her digital fundraising, compared to the size of her supporter base, outpaced anything I’d ever seen. And on the 2020 race, those heartfelt personal messages, not the McConnell screeds, were routinely among the most successful emails we sent. This all boils down to an incredibly important distinction: None of this was cookie cutter. The campaign entrusted Amy’s voice to seasoned writers, and by the end of 2020, nearly every email sent to the McGrath list was penned by one of a handful of people, all of whom had experience writing for Democratic nominees for president.

The McGrath team used the fundraising infrastructure it built to help others. We recognized that we had built something powerful, and we knew we had a responsibility to use it for other good causes. When the pandemic hit, the campaign shifted gears to raise money to help Kentuckians directly. (The campaign actually went on to build an effort to provide support for communities in need, through a program called Commonwealth, Common Health.) After the election, we mobilized supporters for the runoff elections in Georgia. Knowing our supporters were fired up to take power away from Mitch McConnell, we went to work raising over $1 million directly for on-the-ground organizations and the candidates themselves.

We refused to use deceptive tactics. Scratch that: it’s more precise to say that deceptive tactics never even crossed our minds. We didn’t use fake match campaigns, predatory subject lines, confusing sender names, or auto-checked recurring boxes — because tactics that exploit our supporters were off the table from the beginning. (To put a fine point on it, we even decided against using the extremely common “mid-month deadline” tactic because it didn’t refer to an actual budgeting inflection point for our operation.)

The email list wasn’t just a vehicle for fundraising. Don’t get me wrong — donations were always the primary benchmark for the program, especially outside of Kentucky subscribers. But the email program plugged directly into the digital organizing program over a year out from Election Day, often in ways that complicated the lives of the people responsible for executing the programs (Sorry, team!). Every single supporter was given an opportunity over email to take part in the campaign in other, non-fundraising ways. (And for people in Kentucky, the email cadence was often centered on volunteering.)

The campaign didn’t “churn and burn.” As a norm, we decided against sending dozens of emails a week, in contrast with other candidates with national profiles. To be clear, there are legitimate moments when sending multiple emails in a day is appropriate, but when the opportunity arose to put the pedal to the metal, the campaign deliberated — and often decided to pull back instead. Most importantly, we kept a close eye on how supporters were engaging with our emails — namely through open rates, recency of last open, and unsubscribe rates. By most metrics, the email program consistently blew industry benchmarks out of the water, which told us that the subscribers (who had all opted in to the program) were, by and large, feeling it.

In fact, the campaign regularly hit the brakes on fundraising. There’s an anecdote in the the New Republic piece that naturally gives the impression that McGrath’s email program was trying to scrape every last cent out of supporters’ wallets through Election Day — it’s true we did actively raise money for the campaign through October. What the writer probably didn’t know is that we deliberately stopped sending fundraising emails in the final days of the election — precisely because whatever we raised couldn’t be adequately spent. (This might be obvious, but that decision is, uh, a rarity in this industry.) Part of that was because we intended to pivot our calls-to-action to organizing efforts, but we also didn’t see the end of the campaign, win or lose, as an end of our relationship with our supporters and didn’t feel like the money raised was worth crossing that line. Similarly, during the first several months of the pandemic, the McGrath campaign was one of the first campaigns to invite people to opt out of receiving fundraising emails during the crisis.

One last narrative that gets confused is that campaigns like ours leaned into the death of Justice Ginsburg to maximize fundraising returns. The night RBG died, the team dropped everything to get a message out to our supporters, not to ask for money but to tell them how Amy was personally feeling about the news. To make sure there was no confusion, that message removed the donation button from the email template. In fact, we ended up sending only one email over the next three days, and it didn’t include a direct ask to give money. In spite of that, the campaign shattered all of our internal fundraising records that weekend — not because we tried to, but because Democrats were actively (and understandably) seeking out Mitch McConnell’s opponent.

Did Amy McGrath raise too much money in her campaign to defeat Mitch McConnell? It’s easy to look back now, knowing that she lost, and say unequivocally, yes.

But it’s impossible to live through it, seeing polls that had Amy ahead by a percentage point, and not try as hard as you can to try to win. In fact, it was her uncanny fundraising ability (she consistently outraised the sitting Senate Majority Leader!) that represented the only imaginable path to pull off an upset on that scale. And not for nothing, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to get reliable polling results — where we’ve seen huge misses from surveys in races all over the country — campaigns have an obligation to sprint through the finish. It would be irresponsible to do anything less.

It’s true that Mitch ended up winning re-election handily, but it’s also true that he was forced to campaign as if his career was in danger — he needed to raise far more than ever before. There’s no question that Mitch McConnell (and his PAC allies) spending big in his home state helped put the Senate majority in play.

Amy McGrath was a long-shot candidate on the day she announced her campaign. There are reasons the election swung the way it did, and a lot of them turned out to be outside of the McGrath campaign’s control. But you cannot blame a campaign for believing in itself, or for inspiring supporters to believe along with them.

It goes without saying that no one should blame the donors either. Small dollar donors deciding where to spend their own money is part of what makes digital fundraising a revolutionary force in our politics. It’s the very thing that gives long-shot candidates a chance against powerful interests. (How we as a party choose to inform grassroots supporters about the races and candidates in question is a different story.) There’s a false notion that Democratic grassroots fundraising is a zero-sum proposition — that a donation made to Amy McGrath would have landed in the coffers of another candidate. In my experience, that’s just not how donors think. People give when they’re inspired.

Post-mortems are never kind to campaigns that lose. It’s easy to pile on or be cynical about something once it’s in the rearview. But if we really want to talk about the ethics of raising money online and how to change our industry, if we want to do better in 2022 or 2024 and build the kinds of programs so many of us want to see, we owe it to ourselves to take a harder look at how Amy McGrath’s campaign raised all that money. And maybe we can convince others to follow in her footsteps.