Hoping to influence the Democratic debates, former Senator Mike Gravel seeks 65,000 donors

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Mike Gravel in 2007 (Josh Lawton/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)

Despite retiring from the Senate in January 1981, a couple of months before two of the current Democratic presidential candidates (Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg) were even born, former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) is entering the crowded race with an exploratory committee. At 88, Gravel is the oldest candidate in the race, more than a decade older than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Joe Biden.

Gravel, an Army veteran, served as senator from Alaska from 1969 to 1981 where he was often described as a maverick. Gravel, a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and progressive voice on foreign policy, gained national attention for reading the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971 as the New York Times Co v. U.S. Supreme Court case was being argued. After losing re-election in 1981, to the father of current Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Gravel became an advocate for direct democracy and recently served as the CEO of a marijuana company.

Gravel, who also ran in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, writes on his campaign site that “we’re not asking for your vote, and we’re not planning on contesting any primaries.” Instead, Gravel wants to reach the 65,000 donor threshold and qualify for the debates to push “a critique of American militarism, plutocracy, and inaction on climate” and “say what establishment candidates won’t.”

The launch of the committee today was unintended, according to Henry Williams, a staffer for Gravel and a student at Columbia University, but because of inquiries from journalists that found the FEC filing they decided to start promoting the campaign online.

Williams said they were impressed at the “tremendous response” to the launching of the exploratory committee. He reported that since opening the site to donations on the morning of March 20, they have received “hundreds of dollars” in contributions with very little organized promotion. This showed to Gravel that there’s a market for his message, Williams said.

Williams explained that the committee’s fundraising methods will follow in the footsteps of the campaigns of fellow 2020 contenders Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg. This means they plan to focus on activating online, grassroots donors and build a viral presence to reach the 65,000 donors required by the DNC to participate in the debates.

Gravel’s 2008 campaign struggled to gain attention or donors, although it produced several viral ads. Though he was the first Democratic candidate to announce in April 2006 and hung around until March 2008, Gravel switched to the Libertarian primary and failed to gain much traction there.  

During the 2008 cycle, Gravel raised a paltry $690,200 and spent most of it, ending with $59,965 cash on hand. Retirees contributed $29,636, more than any other interest group tracked by The Center for Responsive Politics. Donors to his campaign were overwhelmingly male, with 76 percent of his contributions coming from men. One of his more famous donors was actor and liberal activist Mark Ruffalo who contributed $1,200 to Gravel’s campaign.

In regards to his Senate fundraising, the FEC only has information from Gravel’s 1980 unsuccessful reelection campaign. In that election cycle, Gravel raised more than $900,000 from 1975 to 1981. In comparison, former Sen. (and no deposit bonus forex co-founder) Frank Church (D-Idaho) raised $1.8 million in that cycle. In a similar timeframe, 1979 to 1984, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-De.) raised more than $1.6 million.

Gravel’s admitted focus on getting enough donors to qualify for the debates and to “expand the Overton window in the Democratic Party, pushing the dialogue leftward” appear to be part of a strategy to attract younger, online-orientated donors. His Twitter page, which started tweeting on March 19, is full of jokes along with pointed liberal criticisms of fellow Democratic primary contenders. Gravel also criticizes by name Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Biden on his campaign website deeming them “false progressives.”

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