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The Trailer: "Money in peoples' hands": The Democrats who've learned to love crypto

Congressional candidate Shrina Kurani outside of a cafe in Fullerton, Calif. (David Weigel/The Washington Post)

In this edition: The rise of the crypto Democrat, a landslide election with no concession from the loser, and the worst 2024 discourse of 2022 so far. Please stop asking me how to buy this newsletter as an NFT. This is The Trailer.

FULLERTON, Ca. — The idea came to Shrina Kurani late last year, as the 29-year old engineer was calling donors about her run for Congress.

She’d already outraised the other Democrats in the new 42nd Congressional District, which wasn't one of her party's top 2022 targets. What if she minted some non-fungible tokens, as campaign merchandise? What if she offered to sell 2,022 of them, advertising her interest in cryptocurrency while giving supporters something to own? “We wanted to raise at least $5,000, which would replace around 30 hours of call time for me,” Kurani said in an interview. “We raised $6,000 in 72 hours.”

It wasn’t a lot of money, and just 21 NFTs were sold. But Kurani was the first Democratic candidate to try something that Republicans have been quicker to embrace, using technology that many on the left view with contempt. Most Democrats describe the cryptocurrency market as a “Ponzi scheme” that’s threatening the climate because of the carbon burned to make, mine, and spend it. A few of them, reacting to the life-changing wealth that they hear about from some crypto investors, warns that the party can’t resist what’s already here.

“Once we started talking about this, more people started reaching out to me in Ohio,” said Morgan Harper, 38, a former adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau running for U.S. Senate this year, after losing a Columbus-area House primary in 2020. She summarized the feedback: “This has really been a game-changer for me. I am starting to feel like I'm getting ahead, not just staying afloat.”

Only a handful of Democrats running in 2022 have taken a friendly stance toward cryptocurrency, which 1 in 6 Americans claims to own now or have traded in the past. Like the average crypto investor, most of these candidates were born after 1980. Unlike the best-known evangelists for the $3 trillion industry, none of them are White men, and some don’t hold cryptocurrency at all. (Disclosure: I’ve held some cryptocurrency, mostly BTC, since 2015.)

Former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, greet supporters after the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner on Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In interviews, five Democrats running for Congress this year on pro-crypto platforms talked about each aspect of distributed currency — from blockchain technology itself to the value of different coins — as a way for people without easy access to money to earn their financial freedom.

Each had heard, and disputed, the concerns that cryptocurrency mining and transactions were setting the climate on fire. (It's estimated that bitcoin mining consumed more energy last year than Argentina. Kurani minted NFTs with Solana, she said because using that coin consumes far less energy than using competitors like Ethereum.) Most said they were still learning how the industry worked — and like Harper, the education was often coming from people who'd made money in something that Democrats haven't paid a lot of attention to.

“Look how we were able to impact poverty by sending the child credit to folks,” said the Rev. Wendy Hamilton, who got her start in politics as the faith outreach leader for Andrew Yang's 2020 presidential campaign, and who's now challenging Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in the August primary for her nonvoting seat in the House. “Put money in people's hands. We need to be making it easier to do that. We tend to fear what we don't know. And from a Democratic standpoint: Can't we, for once, be on the front end of something? Can’t we, for once, become known as the proactive party?”

There's no standard Democratic position on cryptocurrency, which has never been discussed in a party platform. Fifteen House Democrats belong to a Blockchain Caucus, which favors an “a light-touch regulatory approach” to the technology that crypto's built on, but only two of them have reported owning anything related to it — and neither Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) or Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) personally hold cryptocurrencies. (Auchincloss holds stock in a crypto company, and Newman's husband has traded stock in CoinBase, a cryptocurrency exchange.)

Auchincloss and Newman, joined by nearly every other Democrat in Congress, also voted last year for a bipartisan infrastructure package that included new reporting and disclosure requirements for cryptocurrency transactions. That took the industry by surprise and accentuated its political challenge: Opposition to the new requirements was concentrated among Republicans, who didn't have the votes to stop them.

But outside of Washington, the crypto Democrats kept meeting voters, and potential donors, who were bullish on this technology and believed it could build wealth. If crypto was, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called it, a “Wild West,” it was also far more accessible to anyone with some money and Internet access than stocks, bonds, real estate, or other ways that people with more financial information or connections could build capital.

“We have people from all across the political spectrum that have gotten excited about my campaign,” said Aarika Rhodes, another Yang campaign veteran, who's challenging Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in his safely blue part of the San Fernando Valley. “I see it all the time on Twitter: 'I've never voted for a Democrat. I've never supported a Democrat my life. But you seem genuine and open-minded, and you support technology.' We have done an extraordinary amount of fundraising because of bitcoin.”

Democrats like Rhodes, simply by talking positively about crypto's potential and being skeptical of regulation, have attracted not just donors but interest from crypto-focused media outlets that aren't very interested in other candidates. YouTube channels like Bankless and publications like Bitcoin Magazine were particularly intrigued in her challenge to Sherman, who became infamous in the community three years ago when he urged colleagues to “outlaw cryptocurrencies” and “nip this in the bud,” before the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency was challenged.

“Clearing through the New York Fed is critical for major oil and other transactions,” Sherman said in 2019, “and it is the announced purpose of the supporters of cryptocurrencies to take that power away from us.”

Sherman was focused, at the time, on whether cryptocurrencies would weaken U.S. sanctions on Iran. He also reflected what some of crypto's true believers say, and have said from the beginning.

The earliest advocates for decentralized currencies tended to be libertarians; in a 2009 essay, months into the life of bitcoin and before most people had heard of cryptocurrency, Peter Thiel wrote that he and other PayPal founders dreamed about “the end of monetary sovereignty” and money “free from all government control and dilution.”

The crypto Democrats have heard that, too. “The bitcoin folks would say that they're okay with UBI,” said Newman, who supports a universal basic income, in cash. “They believe that UBI is going to eventually run out of [government-backed] money and make more desire for bitcoin even more.” She laughed at the idea. “I'm like, I'm going to need you to back up.”

Running their own races, appearing on shows and podcasts that the political media ignores, the crypto Democrats said the utopians and libertarians could coexist with working-class people who simply wanted to build wealth. Where plenty of liberals saw a menace, they saw a system that could be better than the existing system of banks and scams and finance that they, as Democrats, felt was terribly flawed. Sudden crashes in crypto value made news, and so did eye-popping sales numbers for tokens of apes. The long-term story, they said, was of assets that used to be worthless becoming more valuable — and how more people could benefit from that if they got the right information and regulators stayed out of their way.

“People are trying to find ways around the current financial system,” said Matthew Diemer, a podcast host running as a Democrat in Ohio's 13th Congressional District, who owns a “substantial” amount of cryptocurrency. “When it comes to either the printing money or the inflation or just trying to leverage anything that they have — they have a little bit of something and they're trying to go to a bank for a home improvement loan or a student loan or a small-business loan — they're not getting the traction that they would see with decentralized finance.”

Tuesday's special election in Florida's 20th Congressional District was a blowout, with Rep.-elect Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D) winning 79 percent of the vote in her quest to replace the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Turnout was low, with just 55,457 votes counted before the Broward and Palm Beach County canvasses, and the margin was unsurprising — a slight improvement over Joe Biden's 2020 numbers in the district and a bit off from Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance.

Yet for the second time in an incredibly long campaign, Cherfilus-McCormick declared victory over an opponent who wouldn't concede. Republican Jason Mariner, who'd raised questions on his Facebook page about the integrity of voting machines, told CBS Miami that he'd sued over unspecified ballot issues in both parts of the district.

“I did not win, so they say, but that does not mean that they lost either, it does not mean that we lost,” he told Jacqueline Quynh. “We’ll also have some stuff coming out that we’ve recently discovered.”

Mariner's issues with the election are unclear; he did not respond to a request for comment. Days before Tuesday's election, he wrote a tweet about a ballot that displayed both the special congressional election and two Democratic primaries for the state legislature, tagging conservative media personalities like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens.

“Does this ballot seem fair? Legal?” he asked, attaching an image of the sort of ballot tens of thousands of Democratic voters were getting — his name listed first for Congress, and only Democrats listed in other races. (As required by Florida law, candidates from the current governor's party are listed first in races with multiple parties.)

The Democrat blew it off, pointing out that her primary opponent hadn't conceded, either: former Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness filed a lawsuit after losing by five votes, and he's already launched a campaign for this year's primary.

Cherfilus-McCormick's win restored House Democrats to the 222-seat majority they won in 2020, only to be temporarily reduced by the death of Hastings and the elevation of two safe-seat Democrats — Ohio's Marcia L. Fudge and New Mexico's Deb Haaland — into President Biden's Cabinet.

Florida's state Democrats aren't so lucky. Thanks to the state's resign-to-run law, three state legislators who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary had to leave the office at the start of this year. Tuesday's primaries picked likely successors in their deep-blue seats: former Broward County school board chair Rosalind Osgood, “Suits for Seniors” nonprofit founder Jervonte Edmonds and former legislative aide Daryl Campbell. And to Democrats' great frustration, the general elections for the seats won't happen until after this year's regularly scheduled, January-to-March legislative session is over. (All of this was known when five elected Democrats, including two county commissioners, jumped into the race.)

Tuesday's other special elections took place in similarly Democratic districts and produced no surprises. In Maine, former state senator James Boyle easily won the race to replace a Democrat who'd quit 11 months after getting reelected; the margin shifted two points toward Republicans since 2020. In Norfolk, Va., Democrat Jackie Glass won with 75 percent of the vote in a district that had delivered 80 percent of the vote to her party's last nominee. And Charlestown, Mass., City Council member Lydia Edwards won a vacant east Boston seat in the state Senate, where no Republican bothered running.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) listens as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in Washington in 2019. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Club for Growth Action, “Know.” Jane Timken opposed the second impeachment of Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. She called it a “sham,” and “unconstitutional.” Days after declaring her campaign for U.S. Senate, the former Ohio GOP chair called on Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R) to resign, after his vote for impeachment “undermined his ability to effectively represent the people of his district.”

But before she did that, she told reporter Andrew J. Tobias that she thought Gonzalez had “a rational reason why he voted that way,” and was an “effective” congressman. “I don’t know if I would have voted the way he did,” she added. Last May, a group of Ohio conservatives argued, in a letter about many of their problems with the former state chair, that Timken changed her position “the moment it became politically toxic for her to stand with Gonzalez.” That's the interpretation the Club makes here, calling Timken a “phony” who was “passionately defending her RINO congressman” when she initially praised his character.

Britt for Alabama, “Fight for Alabama.” Katie Britt, who Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R) has endorsed as his successor, introduces herself to GOP primary voters with a talk about the U.S.-Mexico border, delivered in a lakeside chair. “We have to show strength at the border,” she says, “and what we're showing right now is weakness,” describing the transition from Trump to Biden. Trump has endorsed her main primary opponent, Rep. Mo Brooks (R).

Club for Growth Action, “Wyoming.” The Trump loyalty test appears again in this ad, made to help Brooks, who's struggled to match Britt's fundraising. But Britt's actual affront is hard to figure out. The Business Council of Alabama, where Britt worked, becomes a liberal interest group because it also endorsed Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D). The evidence that Britt will become a Trump critic, like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney (R), is that Donald Trump Jr. said so in a tweet.

Dave McCormick Exploratory Committee, “Battle Tested, Pennsylvania True.” The hedge fund CEO-turned-Senate candidate was not running, yet, when this ad went up. It was the last spot from the committee McCormick set up while he closed down at Bridgewater Associates, using some of the same imagery as his Christmas-themed introduction ad, and focusing on his Gulf War record before McCormick speaks: “Today the woke left will do anything to make America un-American. This is about saving America from that.” As this ad went up, Democrats filed a complaint, as the committee had blown past the $5,000 spending limit for a noncandidate. Moments later, McCormick was in.

American Leadership Action, “David McCormick: Wall Street & China Win, Pennsylvania Loses.” A PAC supporting Mehmet Oz's U.S. Senate campaign hit McCormick as soon as he entered the race, with this spot. It's a remarkable compilation of opposition research, and it's long, taking advantage of the digital ad space. Bridgewater's moves into China, which occurred when McCormick was CEO, become billion-dollar deals to toss Americans out of their jobs. “He was more like the chief executive outsourcer,” and a brief 2019 interview on the Trump administration's China negotiations (“There’s also a growing risk … of getting a bad deal”), becomes an attack on Trump himself. Reporters have found more McCormick criticism of Trump's approach, which could surface in future ads.

Don Huffines for Texas Governor, “Cowboys.” A former state senator, and one of several Republicans challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the March 1 primary, Huffines bought time for this ad during the most recent Dallas Cowboys game, when they lost to the Arizona Cardinals. “Florida is kicking our butt. It's embarrassing,” Huffines says, with a cut to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to show how the state is “beating us with our leadership.” Huffines closes: “We will put prayer back in our schools, restore our culture, and the Cowboys will get another ring.”

Tina Forte, “AOC.” As in 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has attracted Republican competition that can haul in money from donors around the country, despite having no chance of success in a safe Democratic district. (Her last opponent raised nearly $10 million to win 27 percent of the vote.) Forte, a conservative influencer who went to Washington for the Jan. 6 protests and charges $45 for Cameo recordings, promises here to “stop AOC and her ego-driven socialist agenda,” offering herself as an alternative who fought mask mandates and lockdowns. The most prominent vote Ocasio-Cortez took against her party — against last year's bipartisan infrastructure package — becomes another scandal, that she “opposed New York City's subway improvements.”

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