Nicole Sexton was a wide-eyed intern in the White House Office of National Service when she first caught Potomac fever: an addiction to DC politics, and the belief that government could make any number of “grandiose ideas” real. She made the transition into the secretive and highly lucrative world of DC fundraising, where she spent fifteen years rising to become one of the Republicans’ top fundraisers.
But gradually, she grew disillusioned with the entire system. And today, after helping the Republicans regain their majority in the Senate as the 2002-2005 Director of Finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sexton has done what few fundraisers in the field are willing to do: leave. Today, she works for the ONE campaign, helping to raise awareness about AIDS and the crisis of extreme poverty around the world.
Author of the forthcoming Party Favors–a fictionalized account of her experience as one of the GOP’s most well-connected insiders–Nicole Sexton sat down with The Nation to share her perspective on the rarely talked-about world of political fundraising, the stakes involved, and the difficulty of defining your priorities when your politics are for sale.
So tell me, if I’m running for a seat in the House and I hire you. What’s the process? What do you tell me?
First, we’ll look at your personal Rolodex. We’ll put a finance crew together of people who believe in you–it might be someone who owns a grocery store, or someone who’s president of a bank. It’s grassroots, and you’ll build your donor list from them. You’ll also receive support from the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) and state parties, and they’ll provide resources or outlets for you to raise money through.
But what if I wanted to run for Congress? I mean, I don’t really know any bank presidents. I probably wouldn’t get very far.
Everybody has somebody that they know who has a Rolodex. Or you know someone who’s a stockbroker or banker, or in some sort of corporate capacity is connected to people…Most of the people I ended up working for–well, a few came from the House, but the majority had come from a governor’s position or had been in the private sector, so it wasn’t an overwhelming challenge for them.
When you’re working for a candidate, what kind of dynamic exists between you and your client? What’s that relationship like?
As the fundraiser, you probably have the most intimate relationship with the candidate of anyone on staff. You get to know his friends, his network. Sometimes it’s tough. Some people that I’ve worked with really love raising money and it’s not been an arm-twist at all, but others can’t stand it.
What’s the norm?
Can’t stand it. It’s a chore. Most of the time for senators, the calls are preset so the donor knows you’re calling, and you know that you’ll get the contribution. But still, they’ll want to fill your ear with how they feel about the war, or a piece of legislation, or pending legislation. After all, you know, they’re paying for time. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dollars for legislation–but you’re certainly getting someone’s ear. That’s part of the deal.
Talk to me a little about what donor psychology is like. It seems to me there’s a number of reasons you might give money–you have an ideological affinity, or you share a personal or social connection–
A personal or social connection, or because it’s good business. And if we’re talking about big check writers, more often than not, it’s just good business. A lot of big campaign contributors write checks across the aisle for that reason.
So what makes someone a good fundraiser?
A good Rolodex. A comfort level with asking for money. And then–if you’re a good fundraiser, and you’re smart, you know who to target. So if you’re fundraising for a Senator who’s on the Oil and Gas Committee, you’ll give them 25 call sheets with calls to make to people in that industry. Senators raise a lot of money, and the fundraiser will get a percentage of all that.
Is there an industry standard?
Ten percent. Or these days, a lot of people are charging 15%. Or some people get a retainer, usually $5000 a month, and they’ll get a percentage of only major gifts. Or if you’re a fundraiser who isn’t just doing major donations but is managing the direct mail or the Internet [fundraising] portion, you’ll get a percentage off of that. Everything is done on percentages.
What’s a Senate campaign in Missouri cost? $15 million? $20 million?
I’d say, $12-15 million.
So you can walk away with $1.5 million.
It’s not unheard of. People make a lot of money. And that has the whole industry messed up.
Because too much money is going through the campaign back into the pockets of consultants?
Too much goes into the checked box of overhead. Right now we have finance and media consultants buying second houses on their consulting fees–and that’s money from the guy that gives $50 and works at T.J.Maxx. As I moved further along in my career, I saw more and more money and more misappropriation of funds and disregard for donors. In today’s political world, unless you can afford $2000 and can stand in a reception where the candidate’s going to show up, the likelihood of you ever being able to shake hands with a candidate or ask them a question is slim-to-none. For me it was a real eye-opener–seeing the complete disconnect between the individual and the elected official. It’s not every politician, but it was enough that I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.
It just felt disrespectful and dirty. I see a lot of people who work in the industry, and they’re consumed not by fundraising for the candidate, but fundraising for themselves. It’s an unknown, unregulated industry, and nobody talks about it because no one ever quits or leaves it. But how can you be sincere about your own beliefs when you’re constantly looking for your next client? There’s no moral compass there.
And that’s why you left?
Yes–because it became much more about a numbers game and how many seats we were winning than a real understanding of what the ideology was. And I had serious concerns with some of the incumbents we helped keep in office. I felt they weren’t connected to their constituencies anymore, or had used their position for their advantage….I’m a big believer in term limits. The sweet scent of power is intoxicating. The whole system needs an overhaul.
What would that look like?
For one, there should be a limit on the amount of time a candidate can fundraise. Right now, Hillary’s been raising money for this race for at least the past six years. And at some point, the dollar becomes so much more important than the kind of leader you’re going to be. That’s why they call it the green primary. We should require broadcasters to give a certain amount of free time to candidates, and I think there should be a limit to the amount of his or her own money that a candidate can put into the race. There are a lot of changes you could make, but all of them would end up putting fundraisers out of business, and taking money away from broadcasters and the political consultants who make a fortune. And nobody’s going to fight for that.
What do you make of Obama’s small donors?
I think it’s beautiful. Obama’s the only one whose fundraising operation started small and has consistently grown.
What potential do you think there is for the Internet as a small-donor aggregator? Beyond Obama, are you ever going to be able to raise a lot of money as a House candidate online?
Oh yes, I think the Internet will replace direct mail–like it’s already starting to do on the Democratic side. Republicans still like direct mail, but that will change. If you look at Huckabee, he didn’t even have a finance director, and look how far he got.
Has McCain-Feingold at all recalibrated the role of big donors? Do you think their role can ever be supplanted?
No. No. The money’s shifted through 527s. It’s like water down the sidewalk–it will always find a way to seep into the cracks. Money and influence go hand-in-hand and always will. But I do think you can allow the little voice to get a little bit louder by leveling the playing field a little bit.