Alan Grayson's opening Senate salvo should have been the campaign of liberals' dreams. In the first week of his campaign, the Florida House Democrat and longtime champion of liberal causes immediately pushed progressives' favorite policies—and ripped into his moderate Democratic primary opponent, fellow Rep. Patrick Murphy.
And indeed, among his grassroots supporters, his grand entrance yielded big dividends in campaign fundraising. Within 24 hours of the congressman sending an email saying he was thinking about a Senate bid two weeks ago, he collected $110,000 from more than 1,000 different donors—a showcase of the fundraising pull that Grayson has deployed to pull together $12 million over the course of three election cycles.
"What Democrats want more than anything else is they want to see that Democratic policies can win," Grayson said in an interview with National Journal. "They care an enormous amount about expanding Social Security, expanding Medicare, introducing paid sick leave, making college affordable"¦. I don't see anybody else raising the important issues in this campaign."
But for all the grassroots enthusiasm, amid national progressive groups the reaction has been more, well, moderate.
When Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, another progressive Democrat, was considering a primary run against Rep. Chris Van Hollen for her state's open Senate seat, she was egged along at every step by major national progressive groups: Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee teamed up to petition members urging her to join the race. PCCC put out a glowing endorsement the day she joined the race.
National groups launched no so such "draft Grayson" movement, and when he announced two weeks ago that he would run for Senate? Crickets. And in contrast to the instant endorsement Edwards got from the PCCC, the group still hasn't picked its preferred candidate for the Florida Senate race, and neither has DFA.
A statement from PCCC provided to National Journal last Thursday said, "Grayson has been an effective, progressive hero in Congress," but the group did not endorse his candidacy, instead saying they hoped the Florida primary would be fought over "bold, economic populist ideas." Requests for an interview with leaders of the organization were declined.
DFA responded to an inquiry about the race saying the group was "excited to hear that Grayson has entered" and will be talking to members in Florida "over the days and week ahead." At the end of the statement was a disclosure: DFA is a "member-driven organization," and "ultimately, the decisions we make" on races, endorsements, and resource allocation "are driven by what we hear from our grassroots members."
In contrast, Edwards's leap was welcomed with fundraising emails asking members to "chip in" to help "start her campaign with momentum." An email from PCCC cheering the move said Edwards is "not just an ally—she's one of us."
So what accounts for the disconnect? How has Grayson sent his grassroots fans into euphoria but failed to catch fire with powerful potential national allies? And why aren't those national progressive groups more excited about a candidate whose policies are a near-perfect match for their movement's platform?
In interviews with National Journal, liberal leaders lamented Grayson's divisive rhetoric and personal attacks, saying they detract from a candidate whose contributions to their movement are otherwise almost unmatched.
"It's complicated because progressives feel loyalty to Grayson; he has an important voice in the party and the progressive movement," said one national progressive leader, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. "But he doesn't do himself any favors. He's putting his allies in a really incredibly difficult position of having to defend some of the more problematic aspects of his candidacy by running."
Chief among those "problematic aspects" are recent reports that Grayson, a vocal critic of tax dodgers, manages several hedge funds in his name in the Cayman Islands, prompting multiple requests for investigation by the House Ethics Committee. When asked about the hedge funds, Grayson called a local reporter a "sh---ing robot."
Grayson has also made recent headlines for calling his estranged wife, with whom he has five children, a "gold digger" in the midst of an ugly divorce proceeding, and sued her for using his credit card to buy groceries.
"Grayson is such a polarizing figure, even among the activist Left, that I doubt he picks up much of a head of steam," Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos, said of the race. "As much as someone may admire his votes or even his strident rhetoric, it's quite amazing how easily he turns off even potential allies. "¦ How can you keep a moral high ground going after corrupt hedge-fund managers if you manage your own tax-dodging funds in the Cayman Islands? I doubt many progressives are getting excited about Murphy, but it's not as if Grayson is a sympathetic alternative."
That sentiment was echoed by local political columnist Scott Maxwell in the Orlando Sentinel last week: "I'm a perfect example of Grayson's problem. "¦ I'm an independent who likes his stances on many issues, but can't bring myself to support a guy with serious ethical questions and whose extremist name-calling ways make me feel dirty for being on the same team."
Grayson, for his part, disputes that the unsavory headlines are costing him support for his Senate race. He called the concerns expressed by progressive leaders "insider baseball stuff" that's "simply irrelevant.
"I don't know which five or six people you spoke to about this, but it's really not something that calls for any speculation," said Grayson. "I've been on MSNBC over 100 times; there are plenty of people who are going to be voting in our primary who know exactly about me."
Asked whether it's asking a lot of progressive groups to stand by him through a campaign that could be chock-full of more Grayson-esque quotes, Grayson said, "No, it's not," and that he would "of course" have their backing. "It's a choice between me and a Democrat who is simply pretending to be a Democrat but is actually a Republican," Grayson said. "You can well understand where their loyalties will fall."
While Grayson isn't getting the kind of backing from national progressive groups that Edwards is, he's certainly having better luck than his Democratic primary opponent.
Groups like the PCCC and DFA have indeed been staunch critics of Murphy, and of the efforts by the Democratic Party establishment to assert Murphy as their standard-bearer. Both groups railed against the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's endorsement of Murphy earlier this spring and called for a competitive primary to hold Murphy accountable on some of his more moderate stances, like his support for weakening Dodd-Frank regulations and for the Keystone XL pipeline.
On the state level, Grayson's relationship with progressive groups is warmer. Florida's Democratic Progressive Caucus was one of the most vocal groups in calling on Grayson to join the race. (Even there, however, Grayson hasn't scored an endorsement, as the group's bylaws require them to wait until the still-not-reached candidate filing deadline).
Caucus president Susan Smith, who personally supports Grayson, emphasized Grayson's popularity within the caucus, and she pushed back on the idea that Grayson's personal controversies would affect his chances in the race. "I think people care about the issues. "¦ All the other things are distractions and noise," said Smith. "We did a letter calling for Grayson to get in the race so we would have a choice, because what we were upset about was—we felt like Wall Street Democrats were making the choice for us with Patrick Murphy. "¦ We wanted Grayson in the race because we think he's a bold progressive champion."
But for other liberals, seeing Grayson give up a safe Democratic House seat to take on the Senate race has been painful to watch.
"Alan is one of a handful of members that understands the progressive movement, and who are invested in building up progressive movement infrastructure. That does build deep loyalty," said one national progressive leader. "He's doing a disservice to all of his allies by continuing this charade that he's going to be a competitive candidate, and he should stay in his safe House seat."