what we do
Ascend PAC is a 527 political action committee that identifies and provides meaningful financial support to emerging Democratic candidates running for local office. We view ourselves as an angel investment fund for Democratic politics, bringing together investors who believe in building the pipeline of future talent, and providing these investors with unparalleled insights on talented candidates to support.
The following 6 operating principles define our approach and have enabled us to carve out a unique niche in the progressive movement:
1. The Long View
We take the long view—both in how we think about our candidates, and in how we think about ourselves. For us, this work is less about 2018 and 2020 and more about 2030 and 2040.
2. Talent driven
We are laser-focused on identifying and supporting talent. We spend countless hours speaking with organizational leaders, community leaders, and others to identify individuals we believe have both the interest and capacity to go far in politics.
3. Direct Investment
We believe that directly invested funds are higher-leveraged dollars than independent expenditures, as they can be coordinated with the campaign’s broader efforts. We set up PACs in every state we’re engaged in and donate directly to campaigns.
4. Meaningful Support
We deliver significant, high-impact contributions. By providing at least 1% and generally upwards of 5-15% of a candidate’s budget -- which is often as little as $2,500-5,000 in the races we’re involved in -- we aim to have a real impact in helping our candidates win.
5. Building Community
Supporting Democrats running at the local level is not easy, and it’s not sexy; but it’s important. Our belief is that to ensure there’s continued investment in these races, we need to build a community of investors who believe in this vision and are willing to invest, cycle after cycle.
6. Relentless Focus
We believe to be successful, we must start with a focused mission and execute that mission effectively, growing from there. Everything we do is infused with this focus and discipline.
Endorsement Process and Criteria
Given our focus on talent, we spend quite a bit of time on our selection and endorsement process. Here's an overview of that process as well as the criteria we use in making our endorsements:
Our selection process: A rigorous approach to identifying talent
Identifying talent is a critical focus of Ascend's work, and we go through a painstaking process to find candidates we believe have the talent and capacity to go far in politics. We start with weeks of sourcing, where we speak with dozens of thought leaders on the ground in each state we're engaged in -- organizational leaders, activists, current and former elected officials, etc. These include formal advisors in each state, as well as many others. Our goal is to find individuals who have stood out in their communities; leaders who have shown a commitment to service and an ability to get things done.
We take all of those recommendations and invite a set of candidates to apply online, a fairly rigorous application that helps us to understand them both as candidates and as individuals. Based on their responses, we invite a limited number of candidates to interview -- along with their campaign managers -- and we supplement these interviews with calls to references we have asked them to provide. Based on all of that, we select a subset of those candidates to endorse.
Our criteria: Finding leaders of today and tomorrow
Through each stage of the process, we apply a consistent filter of five criteria to help us identify individuals we believe best represent what we're all about -- candidates who can be leaders today and in the future:
Thoughtful Democrat and Self-Aware Leader: We seek individuals who have compelling life stories and a clear sense of what drives them as people, as Democrats, and as candidates. We don't have policy litmus tests and try to avoid debates about the direction of our the Party writ large, preferring to focus on what we think matters most: finding open-minded, thoughtful people and proud Democrats who we can see being effective leaders.
Talent and Capacity to Drive Change: We believe past performance is a strong predictor of future success, and we look to find candidates with a track record of personal and professional achievement; individuals who have inspired others to action, are compelling communicators, and have demonstrated an ability to work with others to get things done.
Interest in Leading a Life of Service: We seek individuals who have shown a steadfast commitment to service; who have a track record of being involved in their communities, a commitment to bringing others along, an interest in staying involved regardless of the outcome of the current race, and an openness to running for higher office.
Opportunity for Ascend to have Impact in the Race: We like to be difference-makers in the races we're engaged in, and seek to support candidates in races where we can provide at least 1% of the estimated campaign budget. Whether challengers or incumbents, we seek to support individuals who are early in their political careers where our support can provide a meaningful boost to help them win their current race and put them on the map more broadly.
Opportunity for the Race to have Broader Impact in the City or State:We look for opportunities where we can help alter the balance in legislatures, help bring new, diverse leaders to elected bodies that may not have had such representation before, and to make a statement with elections that have impact beyond the immediate contest.
Focus on diversity
In addition to the above criteria, we also pay close attention to the backgrounds of individuals we are supporting; indeed, it is a critical priority for us to support a diverse set of candidates who look like the communities they are seeking to represent. We believe our 2017 and 2018 endorsees thus far reflect that focus.
How we think about viability
Ascend has always been about the long game; indeed, we are driven by the belief that for far too long, our Party has focused on short-term gains at the expense of long-term success. And so while we certainly want to understand our chances of victory in each election, we are far more focused on picking the right candidates than picking the right districts; we are very much open to endorsing in races where the opportunity for victory in November looks dim, but the individual's long term prospects are clearly bright.
Our Target States
Since launching in 2017, Ascend has expanded from our initial target states of Virginia and Texas to now include Pennsylvania (added in 2018) and Wisconsin (added in 2019). We have selected these states based on the criteria outlined below. While states have more elections in some years than others, we follow an approach of "every state, every year" -- meaning we invest in candidates in each of our states every year. This approach enables us to maintain strong and current relationships with dozens of opinion leaders across each state who we engage to learn about up-and-coming candidates. It also underscores our long-term commitment to the states we invest in.
We have several criteria that have driven the selection of our states. We focus on states:
1) A sufficient candidate pool. We invest in states in which there is a critical mass of elections and hence a critical mass of candidates to choose from (in 2017, for example, many states did not have a significant number of elections).
2) A chance to pick up seats. We focus on states that are battlegrounds or emerging battlegrounds, so we are more likely to engage in races where we are supporting a Democrat against a Republican vs. against a fellow Democrat.
3) A focus on spending on candidates vs. compliance. We take seriously our responsibility to spend our investors' money wisely, and hence early on, we're focusing on states where the campaign finance laws are relatively less burdensome, such that we can spend more money supporting candidates and less money on legal and compliance costs.
These criteria have driven the selection of Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and will continue to drive our decision-making moving forward.
Our 2017-2018 Work
2017-2018 Building the Foundation
2017: Launched in late spring 2017, we spent the 6 months leading up to November's elections building our infrastructure and establishing our model. Specifically:
Building the infrastructure: We formally incorporated, launched our web site, and began establishing our approach to identification and selection of candidates. We recruited dozens of Investors (individuals who committed to donate/raise $2,500 - $10,000/year) and raised nearly $75,000 to fund start-up and operating costs and support our first set of candidates.
Establishing operations in Texas and Virginia: We selected Texas and Virginia as our initial 2 states. We launched Advisory Boards in each state and selected, endorsed, and funded 12 candidates (8 of whom won).
2018: During the course of 2018, we continued to expand our operations and impact, while also continuing the lay the foundation for a sustainable organization.
Expanding our impact: We significantly increased our fundraising from 2017, ending the cycle with over 50 Investors who've raised or donated $2,500 or more, and far more than doubling our total raised to nearly $190,000. We continued to invest in Texas and Virginia, and expanded to a third state of Pennsylvania, supporting 26 candidates and again winning just shy of 2/3 of our races.
Continuing to build the infrastructure: We also established our Ascend Partner Network that consists of more than two dozen state and national organizations we work with to identify and support up-and-coming Democratic candidates. As we begin to focus more and more on not just providing and launching pad for candidates, but also providing introductions to other resources to help them succeed over the long-term, this will become a particularly important part of our work.
2019: We're thrilled at our growth and impact thus far, and as we enter 2019, we're excited to continue on this path.
We're aiming to nearly double our fundraising totals again year-over-year and expand to a fourth state while doubling down on our existing 3 states of Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
We hired Hannah Roe Beck, our first full-time staff person in January 2019 and are laying the groundwork to establish an office and build out our team in Washington, DC. We'll be convening our Investors at our annual Investors Retreat in January where we'll be plotting out more specific plans for 2019 and beyond.