Swinging Left on the Upper West Side to Elect a Democratic House

(Bloomberg) -- Laird Whitehill, an astrophysicist retired from working for a hedge fund, rubbed elbows with BlackRock Vice Chairman Matt Mallow in a wood-paneled Manhattan dining room decorated with botanical prints.

Across the hall, a waiter served chicken satay to novelist Erica Jong and Hamptons chronicler Dan Rattiner, seated on a couch surrounded by books. Venture capitalist Alan Patricof swooped in to greet liberal lion Sarah Kovner.

Swinging Left on the Upper West Side to Elect a Democratic House

Another Upper West Side fundraiser for Democrats was underway Wednesday at the tony Dakota apartment of Mallow and his wife Ellen Chesler. The only thing missing were politicians.

The party was for Swing Left, formed last year to raise funds for Democratic House candidates in close races in swing districts across the U.S. Most of the money is held in escrow until after the primaries for the nominees to use in the general election.

With a total of $5.3 million raised so far, the group’s leaders say that donors don’t need to meet and greet the candidates: The desire to put a congressional check on President Donald Trump is motivation enough.

The 70 or so guests, which included Jong’s daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, and Mallow siblings Jon and Betsy, seemed to agree.

“We’re in such a dire strait right now, as long as we’re giving to someone who opposes Trump’s agenda, it’s good," said Steve Rotella, who, as president of Washington Mutual when the bank collapsed in 2008, is familiar with dire straits.

Swinging Left on the Upper West Side to Elect a Democratic House

Swing Left was formed soon after Trump’s election. “Luckily, I go through the stages of grief fairly quickly,” said co-founder and Executive Director Ethan Todras-Whitehill, 37, whose father is Laird Whitehill. A New York native and writer living in Amherst, Massachusetts, he had no prior political experience before starting the group. By January of last year, a website was up and running with 200,000 volunteers enlisted by Tuesday after the inauguration.

Swinging Left on the Upper West Side to Elect a Democratic House

The organization’s first major fundraising after the American Health Care Act vote brought in $1 million in 24 hours for Democrats running against Republicans who voted for it. Some of its biggest contributors are from the Bay Area: Chris Sacca, founder of Lowercase Capital, gave $285,000, and Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio Inc., gave $55,000, according to Federal Election Committee filings. Lawson has also used Swing Left to earmark about $150,000 to Democratic candidates.

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, donated $100,000, and has agreed to match contributions up to $250,000 through May 8 to shore up the group’s budget before primary season starts heating up next month.

The organization has spent $1 million, mostly on salaries (funds for its operations go into a separate account from the one for candidates). It has 14 full-time staff members who work remotely.

Swinging Left on the Upper West Side to Elect a Democratic House

The group is a hybrid political action committee that maintains two accounts. One accepts donations of $5,000 or less, raising money that can be given directly to candidates. The other can take donations of any amount, but none of those funds can be donated to or spent in conjunction with candidates. A total of 321 such PACs have registered, according to the FEC website. Swing Left coordinates with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue and has partnerships with Flippable and the Latino Victory Fund.

Todras-Whitehill said funds raised for the general election will go directly to campaigns and can buy media advertising at cheaper rates than some other PAC money.

“These dollars can stand up to the Koch dollars,” he said.

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