The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the political spam artists whose relentless pleas for money clog your inbox

(Carles Garcia O'Dowd for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that campaign fundraiser writer Molly Shapiro’s first email for her first client, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), was written while Gillibrand was in the House. In fact, she was in the Senate. This version has been corrected.

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) wants you to know that his campaign war chest is “as dry as the heart of a haystack.” Worried about “getting beat like a garage sale couch,” the senator — currently up for reelection — has been “running back and forth like a dog at a meat factory” to find money, and is as “nervous as a cat at a waterpark.” His ally Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) notes that the state of Kennedy’s fundraising is less than stellar: The Louisiana Republican “has missed almost every single deadline so far, and leading into October, this is beyond bad news.”

To most Americans, political fundraising emails are an inbox-clogging nuisance. But recently I set out to view them from a different angle — examining the artistry that goes into writing them and the strategies they deploy to try to separate donors from their money.

Such spam is an exceedingly rare domain where politicians regularly go negative on themselves — emphasizing missed fundraising goals and playing up the odds that they might lose. The message is often stark: Immediately give whatever you can — $5? $50? $500? — or calamity will ensue.

Like Kennedy, John Fetterman — Democratic Senate hopeful from Pennsylvania, whose emails often use “yinz + youse,” terms that voters in western Pennsylvania would understand — is not shy about admitting failure. “The honest-to-goodness truth is we’re still behind on our goal for the quarter,” read one email. He also seeks to motivate donors through sheer exasperation: “My team might not approve, but I’ll just say it: I’m getting a liiiiittle tired of asking for donations all the time.” (Fetterman’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. When I contacted Kennedy’s campaign, a staffer emailed: “We don’t have anything to share on this front.”)

Who actually writes these emails? David Keene, chief executive officer at the right-of-center Elliance Digital Media, used to work for Republican consultant Richard Viguerie, who earned a reputation decades ago as the “direct-mail wizard of the New Right,” to quote The Washington Post. Keene now manages a staff that writes fundraising copy, including for several House races this cycle, though he declined to identify the particular ones.

Announcing missed fundraising goals is a pervasive technique to convey immediate need, says Keene, but these days it’s also a reality for Republicans, whose low-dollar donors are struggling with inflation. “Instead of giving $100 donations, they’re giving $10 donations,” Keene told me.

Taryn Rosenkranz, founder and chief executive officer of New Blue Interactive, has been responsible for numerous Democratic campaign fundraising emails since 2005. She employs about 40 people, who do most of the writing — although she enjoys the craft, so she pitches in occasionally.

Rosenkranz acknowledges that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, her employer years ago, developed a reputation for going overboard, “upping and amping the urgency.” Fundraiser writers on the left “got a little overexcited or overzealous,” but there has been a “return to digital with dignity,” Rosenkranz says. “You can still raise money without saying ‘The sky is falling,’ ” she argues. “When you say ‘The sky is falling’ for too many cycles in a row, the sky falls.” Meaning, people stop giving.

Besides, even in these times of high-stakes politics, fear of losing isn’t the only way to motivate people. Among her favorite recent emails was one her firm wrote for Kendra Horn, a client vying for the U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, which drew on a different, lighter kind of terror: “We have to talk to your dentist,” the email announced in its subject line, leaving the jocular impression that the campaign was going to tell readers’ dentists they had not been flossing.

Molly Shapiro wrote campaign fundraising emails for 12 years — for Rosenkranz and Anne Lewis Strategies. Shapiro — who thinks her fiction and screenplay writing served her well in political fundraising — still remembers her first email for her first client, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.),then a member of the Senate. “I was like, ‘Oh my God: This is a job?’ ” she recalls. In one missive for Gillibrand, Shapiro began: “Most children go through a phase when they say ‘No’ to everything: No to broccoli, no to baths, no to bedtime. Thankfully, though, they grow out of it. I wonder when the Republicans are going to finally grow out of their ‘No’ phase.”

If there’s a modern expert on political spam, it’s Chris Herbert, senior web developer at Longwell Partners in Washington and creator of the Archive of Political Emails. Since July 2019, the site has preserved more than 840,000 emails. As art, Herbert appreciates some emails from Donald Trump Jr., which he thinks are intentionally over-the-top, like those bestowing “Great MAGA King” status on readers who donated any amount by 11:59 p.m. that night. He also lauds the “classy approach” of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt): long but not dramatic emails. (A recent one had a 39-word subject line: “I’m writing to ask if you can take a few minutes to read my most recent op-ed in the Guardian, and then contribute $2.70 to show you’re ready to fight for a government that works for ALL of us.”)

Having worked at nonprofits (though not on political campaigns), Herbert empathizes with the email senders. But he also has sympathy for the receivers who, as he does, get irritated to find their inboxes bombarded with newsletters to which they never subscribed.

Shapiro is clear-eyed about what her audience likely thought of her emails. “I’m sure people get annoyed getting them,” she says. “It’s a fact of life.” But she felt like she was “injecting a little something into the process.”

For his part, Keene makes no apology for his profession. It may be less than dignified to be a spammer, he says, “but the more that you can support the candidates that support the programs, objectives and issues that you care about, the more you can be part of the political process.”

I take his point, but I finished reporting this story with an incredibly overstuffed inbox. Fetterman emails me on average thrice daily. Kennedy might send five a day; on one day in September, he sent seven. The clincher? Two of his emails arrived concomitantly at 7:18 p.m. That’s a heavy diet of spam, by any measure.

Menachem Wecker is a writer in Silver Spring.

This story has been updated.