Silicon Valley’s Doomed Pursuit of D.C. Nirvana

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema
Kent Nishimura via Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
January 18, 2022

For more than a year, the Democratic Party’s most powerful donors have been locked in a high-stakes debate over the future of American elections. Democrats in Washington largely agree on the importance of new laws to expand early and mail-in voting and weaken voter identification laws, among other things. But behind closed doors, among the bundler set and the aides that serve them, the mega-donors who try to shape the party’s agenda have been sharply divided on strategy. On one side are more idealistic contributors who view voting rights legislation as a nonpareil priority, the only thing that can protect American democracy from backsliding. On the other side of the argument are more pragmatic donors who have worried that, in a 50-50 Senate, election reform would wallow in gridlock and steal valuable time from the rest of the progressive agenda. I’ve been talking to both sides regularly, curious as to who would be proven right.

Democrats, after all, need to break a filibuster in order to pass practically any legislation, let alone a sweeping voting reform package that is flatly opposed by Republicans. The clock is ticking before the G.O.P. likely retakes the House in November. And the Senate’s two most conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have been saying for months that they won’t support modifications to the chamber’s filibuster rule, even a carve-out just for this particular bill, no matter what Joe Biden and some big donors may want. That legislation, as of today, is now looking dead.

Nevertheless, over the last week, a group of Democratic donors made something of a Pickett’s Charge to prove the haters wrong. On Wednesday evening, I’m told, over 200 donors piled into a “strategy call” with Chuck Schumer. Schumer didn’t say much of anything new on the call, organized by two donor collaboratives, Voices for Progress and the Democracy Alliance. But the donor-maintenance spoke to the need to both manage—and channel—the anger and pockets of his party’s ultra-rich. Throughout the weekend, anyone who could get Manchin and Sinema on speed dial, such as past donors, tried their damndest to do so, pulling out all stops and refusing to give up, despite the writing on the wall. Then, on Saturday, as I reported, seven of these donor collaboratives—including VFP and the DA—told allies that they would “not endorse or in any way support the re-election of any senator who does not stand up for our democracy and prioritize it over arcane rules.” Some skeptics made sure I knew that these groups don’t meaningfully support candidates anyway, but what if their individual, powerful donors made that same commitment? “We urge the members of our respective organizations to append the same lens to their individual choices.”

That final push was, in many respects, the last gasp of a pressure campaign that dates back about a year. All through the summer, donors were quietly, patiently pressing their case. But the effort took on new urgency this fall when a group of major Democratic donors, primarily from Silicon Valley, went to the mattresses to get Washington to take the issue more seriously. The brigade has been effectively co-led by legendary investor Ron Conway, and more than anyone else, Karla Jurvetson, one of the party’s single biggest donors, who has made voting rights her highest priority during the Biden years. Jurvetson, at a tactical level, has been the ringleader of this donor machine—if you missed my September piece on her advocacy on this issue, catch up here—investing her considerable fortune and influence into convincing the party to swing big, even if it meant fraying her relationship with Sinema, whom she once supported. Jurvetson was really the first major donor to sound the alarm on this issue, and her aide, Cooper Teboe, has been working on this for months. 

Jurvetson was later joined by Conway, who has an elevated sense of his persuasive powers. But Conway also knows his way around Washington—he has enjoyed a close relationship with San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi for decades—and he was ready to leverage the full power of his Rolodex. On the afternoon of October 21, Conway turned his impatience on the West Wing, firing a 609-word letter to Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, co-signed by a V.I.P. list of three dozen major Biden contributors—from Matt Cohler of Benchmark to mega-donor Donald Sussman to yes, Jurvetson—to voice their shared frustration. “We cannot build back better if our institutions of self-government are allowed to be destroyed,” they wrote. “We need your personal leadership and the full force of your Administration to engage in the work to get this legislation enacted, whatever it may take.” (Here’s the full, unreleased letter that I obtained.)

Then around Thanksgiving, I’m told by a person familiar with the call, Conway leaned on Klain over the phone, imploring Biden to put more pressure on people like Manchin. The short call, which featured about ten other donor and consultant types, didn’t go well, but it was clear that Conway was going for the jugular on the filibuster. “He’s probably spending half of his days on this right now,” a person familiar with the call told me last week, shortly before Sinema pulled the plug. “It’s a weird combination of stubbornness and patriotism. It’s much more than I could hope for. But it’s not gonna work.” 

In the final months of the ultimately doomed voting-rights push, Jurvetson, Conway and other like-minded operatives made an effort to expand their pressure network. Over Zooms and Slacks, a larger group of business leaders coalesced around a new coalition, called the Freedom to Vote Alliance, to channel the energy and checks of its high-wattage benefactors into old-fashioned leverage. Last Wednesday, a group of about 40 business and tech heavyweights—including Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Eric Schmidt of Google, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit and Connie Ballmerwrote Biden, Schumer and Mitch McConnell to make the group’s core argument: that being pro-democracy is also pro-business. “We cannot overstate the peril we see to America’s long-term economic health and the profitability of U.S. businesses if our rule of law erodes,” read the letter, which Conway organized. 

On a Friday evening call, Freedom to Vote Alliance members vowed to keep dialing Sinema and Manchin throughout the weekend. The strategy for the pressure campaign has been rooted in the belief, according to a person involved, that the recalcitrant senators might be more responsive to business leaders and the jobs they can bring than to the activist class. (Left unsaid, but presumably implied, was the potential for fresh campaign cash in Arizona and West Virginia.) “What these two folks will respond to, is vocal support from the business community,” wrote Jeff Lawson, the Twilio C.E.O. and an increasingly large Democratic donor, in a new open letter. “They know that jobs mean reelection.”

But the truth is that, even if Lawson wanted the donor community to take the lead with Manchin and Sinema, they were never that engaged on voting rights, and not just because, as Lawson said, they are more comfortable speaking out on trade policy than on democracy reform. The reality is that a not-small number of donors and allied operatives have long viewed the voting rights effort as strategic folly—and certainly disagreed that, as Lawson put it last week, the business community had a “real chance to get this done.” These finance types have argued to me since last spring that their fellow donors were effectively on a death march; that there was no clear pressure point, never mind a thought-out strategy, for flipping Manchin or Sinema, who for months have said publicly—again and again and again—that they opposed changes to the Senate filibuster. “It’s deeply frustrating to me. ‘Clap for Tinkerbell’ as a political strategy,” one large contributor texted me late last week. “Do they believe that there is some double secret pressure tactic that Biden is holding back on that would move Manchin & Sinema?”

That group of donors and operatives are now on a quiet victory lap, and, honestly, deservedly so. Everyone else is retreating to Plan B. There’s already some talk among donors about whether to declare war and spend money on, say, funding a primary challenge to Sinema. Meanwhile in Washington, Democrats will have to find a back-up plan—perhaps a more-tailored bill focused on reforming the counting of votes in the Electoral College, which some Republicans may support. Politics, as Bismarck said, is the art of the possible.