Oct 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The well-funded world of challenging congressional bogeymen

Photo illustration of Marcus Flowers surrounded by ballot shapes and a hundred dollar bill

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Imagess

Tucked between uber-famous Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on the list of top 10 House fundraisers this cycle is a candidate most voters have probably never heard of: Marcus Flowers.

Why it matters: Flowers has raised a staggering $10.8 million — despite being all but certain to lose. He's the Democrat challenging the right-wing firebrand Greene, whose district voted for former President Trump by nearly 40 points in 2020.

  • He's also got a checkered past: The New Republic reported last July that the Army veteran and defense contractor has offered only murky details of his career and was accused by his ex-wife of leaving her at a homeless shelter during an acrimonious divorce process.

The big picture: Flowers is far from the only obscure candidate with eccentric biographical details running against one of the House's most high-profile members — and raising huge sums in the process.

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump's most outspoken allies, faces Democrat Rebekah Jones, who is standing trial in January on charges she illegally accessed a Florida Department of Health computer system.
  • Jones generated national headlines in 2020 when she accused officials of firing her from the state DOH over her refusal to falsify COVID-19 data — claims that an inspector general's report said were “unfounded.”
  • Pro-Trump activist Tina Forte, Ocasio-Cortez's Republican opponent, was on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.

Between the lines: The rise of online grassroots fundraising in recent cycles has helped create a cottage industry out of running against universally known, entrenched lawmakers who inspire particular animus from the other side’s base.

  • In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke raised nearly $80 million in a competitive but uphill bid against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
  • That dynamic was replicated in 2020 by Amy McGrath and Jaime Harrison in their long-shot challenges to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), respectively.
  • Some have made a career out of these campaigns: Republican Omar Navarro, who was jailed for six months in 2020 on a stalking charge, ran for Rep. Maxine Waters' (D-Calif.) seat in 2016, 2018 and 2020 — raising over $1.1 million in 2018 and $700,000 in 2020. He’s the GOP nominee again this year.

If you're on Twitter and follow politics, you've probably encountered at least one tweet like this: "I’m [name], the [party affiliation] and [profession] running to defeat [controversial House member]. Please retweet and follow to help grow our platform and spread the word that this seat is winnable!"

  • It's a format often employed by candidates running against these high-profile bogeymen.
  • Matt Castelli, a former CIA operative running against House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), has tweeted some version of this practically once a month since the start of the year.
  • Stefanik's district went for Trump by 11 points in 2020, but she won re-election that year by 18 points against a well-funded opponent.

By the numbers: This kind of appeal appears to work wonders: The little-known Castelli has gone from fewer than 10,000 followers on Twitter last December to over 85,000 today. His campaign says he's raised more than $2 million this cycle.

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