These wealthy Democratic women have a plan to beat Trump at his own game

Image: These rich Democratic donors want candidates to play for the base --
These rich Democratic donors want candidates to play for the base -- and forget about broadening the coalition. Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News; Getty Images
By Alex Seitz-Wald with NBC News Politics
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The progressive group Way to Win was co-founded by an heiress to a Texas oil fortune.


WASHINGTON — Wealthy people don't often invite socialiststo speak at their conferences.

But most gatherings of the rich are not like the Way to Win, network ofdeep-pocketed progressive donors, run almost entirely by women, who don't fit the typical mold of other big-money political givers.

The network, which recommends where donations should be directed, has placed more than $30 million to political nonprofit groups and candidatessince its founding in 2017 and plans to expand on that significantly to at least $50 million in next election cycle, while sticking to its approach of remaking the Democratic Party by sending money to small local groups run predominantly by people of color and women.

At a conference in Washington on Monday, the group is unveiling its Plan to Win in 2020, shared early with NBC News, which explicitly rejects the focus many Democrats have on beating President Donald Trump by winning back working-class white voters in the Rust Belt. Instead, the plan favors expanding turnout among minorities and other Democratic-leaning demographic groups in rapidly diversifying states like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Florida.

"We can win the White House without taking the Midwestern states that slipped in 2016, and where demographic trends are unfavorable," the plan says, laying out a strategy to support grassroots organizing efforts the group hopes will help Democrats win everything from school boards to the White House by bringing new voters into the process.

"You have a president who is attacking birthright citizenship, putting people in cages — if these don't persuade you that he is not the right person to lead the country, then I don't know what persuasion campaign will," said Way to Win co-founder Tory Gavito. "He's got a base mobilization strategy, which means we need to, too."

In addition to an opening keynote address from Tiffany Cabán, the 32-year-old Democratic Socialist who narrowly lost a recent district attorney race in Queens, the conference features appearances from left-wing groups like Justice Democrats, which recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress, and the climate group Sunshine Movement, known for their frequent protests of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Needless to say, these are not your typical Joe Biden donors; they probably have more in common with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, even though those candidates have sworn off big donors.

"I think there's a new generation of donors who are open to taking more risks and who have lived through past mistakes," said another of the group's co-founders, Leah Hunt-Hendrix, 36, an heiress to a Texas oil fortune founded by her late grandfather H.L. Hunt, who made a name for himself by promoting right-wing causes.

"I always knew from a young age that wealth did not equal happiness," said Hunt-Hendrix, who was involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement. "That people with wealth are often isolated and struggling and lonely and that by really being involved in something bigger than yourself and contributing to the arc of history that you can find so much more happiness and community. Sacrificing some of one's wealth or power is a small price to pay for the world that is more just and fair and where those resources and shared."

She has attracted other prominent liberal donors with an approach that prioritizes long-term investments in grassroots organizing to bring new voters into the process, instead of dumping a ton of money on TV ads to win the next election.

"After the infamous 2016 election, I think many of us were so taken sideways that there was a very strong feeling that the old ways weren't working," said Susan Stowell Pritzker, a member of one the wealthiest families in the country.

The Pritzkers, who own Hyatt hotels, are prominent Democratic donors closely associated with former President Barack Obama and relations include the current governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, and Obama's former commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker.

Pritzker said she has had trouble convincing other wealthy benefactors that investing in communities of color is the best way to secure the Democratic Party's future.

"They nod and stare, but I have had a hard time getting in," she told NBC News. "I don't want to say that it's implicit bias, or a white person's fear of the brown horde, because it wouldn't be conscious. It'd be unconscious, but it might be there."

The mostly white members of Way to Win can be an unlikely partner with minority-focused groups they support, but a valuable one, said Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project.

"It's clear that they shared our analysis," said Ufot, whose group was founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. "We can bring the wealthy, often white, donor and operative class along with us."

Hunt-Hendrix and her colleagues scour the country for groups and leaders they think are doing the best job organizing voters who aren't likely to turn out in key states in important races up and down the ballot. Three-quarters of the group Way to Win supports are run by people of color and 69 percent are run by women.


Most traditional big-money groups, meanwhile, are not ready to give up on swing voters in places like Wisconsin.

"We know that by every measurement there's a host of undecided voters who are open to being persuaded," said Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democrats' largest super PAC, Priorities USA, at a recent briefing for reporters.

Hunt-Hendrix said it's fine if other groups want to chase swing voters, but added that she wants to focus on getting fans to the stadium instead of convincing people to switch teams.

"It's a missed opportunity when we use elections to focus on people who are not sure what they stand for," she said, "rather than people who really do believe in progressive priorities, but have not been brought into the political process."

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