In New York, Republicans Are Donating to Democrats, Hoping to Defeat Socialists

In this month’s New York State Assembly races, why are certain center-left Democrats attracting unusual largesse from right-wing GOP donors? It may have something to do with the fact that they are running in primaries against socialist candidates.

Members of the the New York City DSA slate of socialist candidates for the New York state legislature and incumbent socialist legislators. (Alexandra Chan / YDSA)

Several rich Donald Trump supporters have been doing a curious thing this election cycle: sending thousands of dollars to New York Democrats running for state assembly. Why would these enemies of reproductive choice, fair elections, and clean air get involved in local races so obscure most locals aren’t even aware of them?

What might Nikki Lucas of East New York, Erik Dilan of North Brooklyn, Grace Lee of Chinatown, and the Hudson Valley’s Kevin Cahill have in common that would attract big Republican dollars? The answer is simple: all four face competitive races against socialist candidates endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), part of a slate endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).

Republicans are willing to form a big-tent coalition with centrist Democrats against NYC-DSA’s agenda of publicly funded renewable energy and publicly owned power, affordable housing, single-payer health care, free public college, universal childcare, and fully funded public schools. While NYC-DSA campaigns always attract volunteer energy, these campaigns have stood out in an election season in which few mainstream, national Democrats are talking about the climate crisis — much less offering solutions to it — or about single-payer health care or any of the other issues that ignited Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Instead, the Joe Biden administration seems to be working hard to make Democrats as unpopular as possible (planning, for example, to reduce the nicotine levels in cigarettes — surely an issue where the relative levels of voter preference intensity will work against the administration). Not every candidate in NYC-DSA’s slate will win, but they’re all promising leaders with significant organization and grassroots energy behind them. This slate has a serious agenda, a movement, and a future. That’s why the Republicans want to stop them.

Steven Price, CEO of Townsquare Media, a media conglomerate based in Purchase, New York, has contributed generously over the years to Republicans Tom Cotton, Paul Ryan, John Faso, Kelly Loeffler, and Donald Trump. This cycle, though, he’s also sent money to Nikki Lucas, a candidate backed by the Brooklyn Democratic machine who just won a special election in February and now faces a challenge from Keron Alleyne, a socialist activist and community gardener we wrote about last month. Another recipient of Price’s money is Erik Dilan, a Democratic assemblyman fighting for his seat against Samy Nemir Olivares, a socialist district leader and LGBTQ activist. Kevin Cahill, another Democratic assemblyman, is struggling to defend his seat against a challenge from Sarahana Shrestha, a climate activist I just interviewed for the Nation (where I also broke the news about Price’s donation to Cahill).

Grace Lee, who is running in an open seat against climate activist Illapa Sairitupac, also backed by NYC-DSA, is getting a massive amount of money from Wall Street, and in particular, Trump donor Frank Bisignano, as the Indypendent has reported. In addition to Trump, Bisignano, one of the highest-paid CEOs in the United States, has donated to the Republican Party, Mitch McConnell, and David Perdue. (After Sairitupac tweeted about the money, demanding that Lee return it, her campaign vowed on Tuesday to make a charitable contribution.)

It’s not the first time Bisignano, former CEO of First Data Corporation and now of Fiserv, a fintech company, has tried valiantly to keep New York socialists out of office. He was on it early, contributing to Joe Crowley, the Democrat unseated by AOC in 2018, just after AOC announced her challenge. Last year Bisignano sent an off-cycle donation to newly elected Bronx Democratic congressman Ritchie Torres. Republicans don’t typically like gay Democrats from the South Bronx, but it’s easy to see how conservatives might look beyond their prejudices to find Torres attractive: ever since NYC-DSA, AOC, and Bernie Sanders opposed him in a primary, he’s established himself as the youthful anti-socialist voice in New York politics, calling DSA’s solidarity with Palestinians “insane,” expressing “deep” concern about DSA’s view of NATO, and dog-whistling the “Corbynization” of American politics, implying falsely that Jeremy Corbyn and AOC are antisemitic.

Another of Lee’s many financier donors is venture capitalist and real estate investor Charles Cascarilla, founder of Paxos, which runs itBit, the first Bitcoin exchange licensed in the state of New York. (There is significant progressive energy in Albany to regulate this sector and minimize its pointless ecological destruction, so he’s got a material interest in keeping ecosocalists out of office.) He has supported her in the past. (Two years ago she lost in a primary against the more progressive Yuh-Line Niou.) Like many rich people, he gives to both Democrats and Republicans, but among the latter, a special favorite of Cascarilla’s is Congressman Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Trumper endorsed by the Tea Party, who was one of only seven right-wing House members to vote against the investigation of the events surrounding the January 6 riots. He’s also — judging by his checkbook — enamored of Kyrsten Sinema, which is reason enough for any New York Democrat to return his money.

With enemies like this, NYC-DSA is obviously doing something right. The popularity, vision, ground game, and youthful energy of the socialists are clearly terrifying some of America’s worst rich people. Let’s hope New York’s liberal voters decide they don’t want to join Team Trump and are willing to dally with socialism instead.