Nonpartisan PAC lets donors give across the board

Reporter April 16, 2012

Quick quiz: What group has donated money to conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and both the Republican and Democratic House campaign committees?

The answer is a political action committee called Votesane. But it’s also a trick question, because the unusual two-year-old group doesn’t really give money to anyone. Rather, it serves as a conduit for individual donors to pass money along to the candidates and committees of their choosing, regardless of party or ideological persuasion.

Since it was launched in July 2010, Votesane has gotten relatively little media attention. Yet it keeps quietly collecting donations and doling them out. Through Monday, the group had made more than $780,000 in contributions, according to a running ticker on its Web site. In February alone, Votesane handed out $117,000 to federal candidates and committees, including Bachmann, Waxman and other polarizing figures on both sides of the political divide.

“Adore or despise?” asks an ad on the group’s Web site. “Votesane lets you donate to a candidate . . . or their opponent!”

The ad features two pictures of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — one normal and one adorned with cartoonish devil horns and a pitchfork.

Visitors to the site can register to vote, donate money and give candidates a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The current list of “popular candidates” includes Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Reps. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) — five people who share nothing in common beyond serving in Congress.

The site isn’t necessarily aimed at those who are already heavily involved in the process. Instead, it hopes to attract both moderates and political newcomers. But are those the kinds of people who will be willing to open their wallets for a campaign contribution? And in an increasingly balkanized world of political media, where liberals and conservatives flock toward media outlets and Web sites with which they agree, is there space for a site that aims to attract everyone?

“That’s one of the big questions,” said Votesane founder Rob Zimmer, who also runs the small political consulting and lobbying firm TVDC. “Activists are always self-motivated. One of the things Votesane will test out is, if you make it easier for people to really, truly get involved, will they? I certainly hope so.”

Zimmer compared the site to a “marketplace” where shoppers could review all the candidates and pick whom to support, rather than a more traditional political site that steers visitors toward particular wares.

As a conduit for contributions, Votesane resembles ActBlue, which calls itself “the nation’s largest source of funds for Democrats.” Similar ventures have been attempted for Republicans. But Votesane appears to be the lone nonpartisan entrant in the field.

“We haven’t really seen anything like this before,” said former Federal Election Commission general counsel Lawrence M. Noble.

Given its novelty, it’s hard to say whether the site has been a success so far. Overall, Zimmer said he was “pleased, given that it’s a new model entirely . . . that it’s made a decent amount of progress.”

But John Feehery, the Republican strategist and former Hill aide who serves on Votesane’s advisory board, said he thinks the site’s progress has been “slow.”

“It’s a good resource, but I don’t think it’s caught on the way it should have because it doesn’t have big PR ‘oomph’ behind it,” Feehery said.

When the site was launched, Feehery and veteran Democratic consultant Karen Finney engaged in a handful of online debates over key issues, but that practice didn’t last long. Feehery said he now has little involvement with the site, which — in addition to funneling contributions — was also designed to attract users looking for news and robust political discussion.

“I don’t think it’s created the sort of forum that people expected it to,” Feehery said.

And yet the financial side of the business keeps chugging along. Part of the site’s success in drawing contributions comes from the fact that outside groups can use Votesane’s software to help their members give money to candidates.

Zimmer said the PAC operates with a “lean” structure. Roughly 95 percent of the contributions it takes in goes directly to candidates and groups, with only 5 percent devoted to credit card processing fees and Votesane’s own overhead.

As this election year heats up and most voters head toward their traditional opposite corners, Votesane’s ability to attract donors will increasingly be put to the test.

“It may be an interesting place for people who feel nonpartisan to go to,” Noble said, “but at the end of the day they’re still giving to partisan candidates.”

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