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.”