At first glance, the prominent political action committee End Citizens United (ECU) appears to be dedicated to channeling widespread grassroots anger at corporate money in politics into promoting candidates who reject cash from big business and support bold campaign finance reform.
But a closer look at the candidates ECU endorses and funds reveals that the organization frequently uses its vast resources to reinforce the poisonous status quo.
"A review of End Citizens United's campaign contributions shows a group that funds to the mainstream of the Democratic congressional caucus and is particularly supportive of the the more conservative and corporate-friendly members of the party."
—Donald Shaw, Sludge
In a detailed analysis of the ECU's recent endorsements, fundraising efforts, and campaign spending, Donald Shaw of Sludge—an outlet that covers political corruption—found that the group deploys "a large part of their campaign contributions to re-elect corporate-financed Democratic incumbents."
"Despite advocating for Democrats to reject corporate money, End Citizens United hasn't prioritized contributing to incumbents who make such pledges," Shaw writes. "A review of End Citizens United's campaign contributions shows a group that funds to the mainstream of the Democratic congressional caucus and is particularly supportive of the the more conservative and corporate-friendly members of the party."
An instructive example of ECU's preference for business-friendly Democrats was its decision to back 10-term incumbent and Wall Street favorite Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) over democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who refused to take a dime of corporate money.
ECU—which was founded in 2015 by three former online fundraising specialists for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)—donated $5,000 to Crowley's campaign, joining the more than 250 corporate PAC's who gave to Crowley during the 2018 election cycle. The powerful House Democrat lost in a landslide to the 28-year-old progressive Ocasio-Cortez.
Additionally, Shaw notes, ECU "has helped to finance members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a conservative group of Democrats that prioritize working across the aisle with Republicans and often side with corporate interests on issues like financial deregulation, tax policy, and defense spending."
Since its inception, ECU has utilized aggressive fundraising tactics—renting email lists from media outlets like AlterNet and Mother Jones and sending up to seven fundraising pleas per day—to rake in millions in funds. Some of that money was then then given to corporate-friendly Democrats who are already flush with industry cash.
In an email to her group's supporters on Tuesday, Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, national director of Move to Amend—a grassroots organization that works to combat corporate influence in politics—wrote that ECU's tactics have harmed her organization's fundraising and outreach efforts, as the two organizations are frequently believed to be the same group.
"If their organization only supported candidates who firmly pledged no PAC money, their contributions could breathe much-needed life into grassroots campaigns. Instead it looks more like an intentional obfuscation."
—Cory Archibald, Brand New Congress
"Most of the time folks are frustrated about the onslaught, or confused about why we would suddenly back candidates instead of movement building, especially when those candidates are often not leaders in the movement to end Citizens United in Congress," Sopoci-Belknap noted. "So who exactly is this group anyway? How are they actually working to 'end' Citizens United?"
Citing Sludge's reporting, Sopoci-Belknap wrote "actions speak louder than words" and concluded that ECU is an "opportunistic organization that is raising big money on the promise of ending Citizens United, but is actually doing very little to support the broader movement for democracy."
Cory Archibald, a spokeswoman for the anti-corruption organization Brand New Congress, echoed Sopoci-Belknap's assessment in an interview with Sludge, arguing that ECU "looks like an attractive option" on the surface but utterly fails to live up to its promises in practice.
"If their organization only supported candidates who firmly pledged no PAC money, their contributions could breathe much-needed life into grassroots campaigns," Archibald concluded. "Instead it looks more like an intentional obfuscation."