Goodbye campaign buttons, hello NFTs: Democrats turn to internet phenomenon to raise money

Front Row, the marketplace founded and self-funded by four Democratic strategists, is making the case that NFTs — unique virtual works of art that are easy to trade using blockchain technology — will serve as the digital version of campaign swag, bringing political memorabilia to a new generation of crypto-native young people.

“Our goal in launching Front Row is to build an NFT platform for progressive causes that can engage more voters and give supporters a new medium to contribute to the movements they care about,” Parker Butterworth, one of the co-founders of Front Row, told CNN.

Front Row’s initial partnership is with the Texas Democratic Party, and for its first NFT drop, the group is auctioning off digital versions of arrest warrants for the Texas state representatives who fled the state this summer to break the state House’s quorum and block a bill that would make it harder for many Texans to vote.

Since the Texas Democrats’ rebellion, the GOP-controlled state legislature has passed laws restricting access to the ballot box, limiting abortion and restricting discussions of race and history in schools. Front Row told CNN that with its first auction, it hopes to raise money to elect more Democrats to the Texas legislature and fight back against the recent laws, which Butterworth called “draconian.”

“This partnership with Front Row is one key component of our strategy to ensure Texas Democrats have the resources we need to get out there, register voters and mobilize them so that we can be as impactful as we possibly can and win in 2022 and beyond,” Angelica Luna-Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, told CNN.

“It’s a new opportunity for us to potentially reach donors that maybe we weren’t reaching in our conventional ways. And it’s exciting to be a part of something that is at the forefront of technology and commerce,” she said.

The new platform for Democratic fundraising, which was first reported by Axios, comes following a political awakening in the crypto world.
In August, members of the crypto community started to donate to crypto-focused organizations, hire lobbyists and ramp up advocacy efforts in a push to get Congress on board with the industry, as pressure built on lawmakers to address a cryptocurrency provision of the bipartisan infrastructure bill before a vote in the House.

The push followed a debate among senators that resulted in dueling amendment proposals that would have modified language included in the bipartisan infrastructure package. The amended language did not end up in the version of the bill that went to the House.

Front Row is not the first group to use NFTs for political purposes.

As debate over the crypto provision unfolded on Capitol Hill this summer, NFT artist Jack Butcher auctioned off a politics-inspired NFT, which he named HR 3684 after a piece of the bipartisan infrastructure framework. And Dr. Scott Jensen, a Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota, rolled out NFTs for his campaign.

But with its launch, Front Row is looking to further connect the political and crypto communities.

So far, however, the platform is accepting bids only in US dollars. All donations will be in compliance with campaign finance laws, the group says.

Asked why the platform built for NFTs and crypto users isn’t yet accepting cryptocurrency, Butterworth told CNN that the group decided to start with the US dollar to make the platform accessible to both crypto-natives and traditional progressive donors.

“We are trying to marry these two things so that everyone is able to participate,” he said.

Should Front Row move to accept donations in cryptocurrency, which the group says it is planning to do in the coming months as it increases platform traffic, the blockchain technology would make it so that every transaction is documented on a public ledger.

“We’re really proud to say, ‘Hey, dark money, dark donations aren’t OK in our system,’ and that’s why we wanted to provide a secure and transparent platform for progressive organizations, campaigns and movements to participate in the NFT space,” Butterworth said.

The goal of transparent giving comes at a time when the future of campaign finance revisions is up in the air. Democrats sought to include campaign finance as part of their sweeping elections and overhaul bill earlier this year, but the legislation was blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

While the logistics of donating via crypto aren’t yet clear on Butterworth’s platform, he said Front Row would like to introduce crypto-natives to politics and progressive donors to crypto.

Butterworth acknowledged that there probably is skepticism around the idea but said he has yet to hear directly from anyone with those reservations.

However, a Democratic strategist, Mike Nellis, told CNN he’s “skeptical” about using NFTs to raise grassroots money for progressive campaigns, although he added that he would be intrigued by Front Row if it is able to scale.

Nellis, a former senior adviser to Kamala Harris who founded a Democratic digital agency called Authentic, told CNN the digital fundraising space is “incredibly crowded,” which he said is “forcing all of us to look at new and creative ways to fundraise online for our clients.”

“It’s a world I don’t fully understand, but I would be willing to try it [for a client],” Nellis said of the NFT space, adding that if candidates could sell unique items with as much popularity as something like the Obama Hope poster, he could see the crypto fad “making an impact.”

Yet, Nellis said, he believes NFT use is more likely apt for an affluent demographic looking to make an “eccentric investment” over grassroots donors “investing in candidates and causes they care deeply about.”