Crypto Giants Notch Wins in Expensive Quest to Sway U.S. Politics – Without Mentioning Crypto

Coinbase, Ripple and a16z donated unprecedented money to influence the outcomes of congressional races, but nobody wants to say who's in charge, how it works or even to discuss digital assets in campaign ads.

AccessTimeIconJun 26, 2024 at 5:19 p.m. UTC
Updated Jun 27, 2024 at 6:52 p.m. UTC
  • The crypto industry has been deploying a $169 million fund that's so far supported more than 20 congressional primary wins in the 2024 elections – including helping knock off an incumbent congressman in New York this week.
  • The companies behind the Fairshake PAC and its affiliates have declined to answer questions about its origins or their ongoing relationship with the organization.
  • The crypto industry is buying millions of dollars in ads that generally don't mention cryptocurrency.

In politics, money talks, but the donors and organizers behind crypto's massive U.S. campaign fund don't.

The digital assets industry has amassed a juggernaut of campaign finance, a $169 million fund that's capable of steering many contests this year and could decide the makeup of next year's Congress. It's already scored more than 20 victories, including high-profile elections in California and, just this week, New York. Crypto's political operation has been using tactics it tested successfully in the congressional races two years ago, but this time, there's a lot more money – enough to rival the top politically active industries and even the major parties' own war chests. And those in charge of how it's spent don't want to discuss how they got here.

Representatives of the Fairshake political action committee that wields the bulk of the money have declined to answer questions about the PAC's management, coordination and decision-making, and its main backers – including Coinbase Inc., Ripple and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) – are similarly reticent, despite repeated attempts by CoinDesk over a months-long period to ask who is in charge and how choices are made with funds pooled by industry leaders.

CoinDesk analyzed the federal campaign-donor disclosures of more than two dozen prominent business leaders and leading companies to paint a picture of an operation that's rapidly (and cooperatively) amplifying its approach to political influence. The vast bulk of money is shepherded through a set of coordinated PACs under the umbrella of Fairshake. That PAC is affiliated with a matched set of underling committees: Protect Progress, for supporting Democrats, and Defend American Jobs, the Republican outlet. The industry has also used a dark-money group, the Cedar Innovation Foundation, which in one initiative pushed the crypto cause in the pivotal-but-delicate battleground of Ohio.

The PACs have flooded targeted primary elections with influxes of money that in some cases vastly outpaced the organic fundraising by the candidates, but so-called super PACs like Fairshake don't give directly to campaigns. That would be illegal. Instead, they buy ads for or against candidates, which they can do at an unlimited level. While one primary candidate in a race may be relying entirely on rounding up individual donations, which are capped at $3,300 per election, her opponent may get the boon of this super PAC that splashes out millions.

Crypto benefactors offer an explanation for the massive campaign spending: Tens of millions of U.S. voters who want the government to embrace and write tailored rules for digital assets haven't been heard, they say.

"It became obvious to us that they had almost no voice in the political process and that there was this huge disconnect between policymakers and this gigantic cross-section of the American public," said Faryar Shirzad, chief policy officer at Coinbase, in an interview with CoinDesk.

"We're trying to de-politicize crypto," said Faryar, who migrated to the industry from Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs Group Inc. "Our broader policy and political efforts are designed to allow us to have discussion on the merits."

However, the ads the PACs are paying for typically don't even mention – let alone advocate for – crypto.

(Jesse Hamilton/CoinDesk)
(Jesse Hamilton/CoinDesk)

When contacted by CoinDesk, Coinbase invited further questions about its political involvement before declining to get into the nuts and bolts of how decisions are being made with the nearly $50 million the company donated. Ripple and a16z Crypto were asked similar questions that sought to understand how the PACs were set up, who is in charge of them and how the wishes of donors have been shared with those managing the giving, and they declined to answer.

Public company Coinbase did disclose in a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that "in December 2023, we together with a number of other crypto and blockchain market participants supported the launch of the Fairshake Political Action Committee to support political candidates in the 2024 U.S. presidential election who support crypto and blockchain innovation and responsible regulation." However, a Fairshake spokesman told CoinDesk the PACs aren't planning to weigh in on presidential candidates, despite recent news from some of the individual leaders who have loudly thrown in with former President Donald Trump.

While the Coinbase statement suggests coordination among donors, it's unclear how the companies – sometimes rivals – came together, though most of the companies or businesses they've invested in have faced enforcement disputes with federal regulators. Their cooperation is seemingly continuing, with a recent follow-up round of matching contributions from the top three companies for $25 million each.

Stopping new Warrens

One of the emerging stars in U.S. progressive politics, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), was setting a course to become another Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the former presidential candidate and outsized presence in Democratic politics. In Porter's California, the 50-year-old lawmaker had a reasonable shot at an open Senate seat this year.

But the cryptocurrency industry's political operation couldn't stomach another high-profile senator standing in the way in Washington, so it devoted more than $10 million to sour her base of young voters there during the California primary.

Her high-profile Senate campaign in California had raised a little more than $30 million from direct donors and about another $500,000 from outside PAC support, so, thanks to this single industry, about a third of that was directly countered.

The campaign to derail Porter flew banners over Hollywood and drove vans around featuring barbed commentary to support accusations that she was misleading voters about taking corporate support for her campaign – a claim her campaign refuted, countering that it was "billionaires and corporate special interests using misinformation to rig our elections."

Under the well-funded assault, Porter fell behind frontrunner Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) – who raised a similar amount but had no opposition spending – and top Republican candidate Steve Garvey, a former Major League Baseball star. She was eliminated in the primary, blocking her pathway to the Senate and bumping her entirely from Congress (since she isn't running to keep her House seat).

A consistent strategy of Fairshake is to focus on districts that lean strongly toward one party and to support crypto-friendly candidates in those primary elections, because the winners are also likely to take the general election. If that seems a familiar gambit to elevate crypto candidates, it may be because it was the same one used by GMI PAC Inc., a leading industry PAC in 2022, which counted convicted fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, the former FTX CEO, as one of its top backers. GMI's strategist then, Michael Carcaise, is in a similar role now at Fairshake.

Latest foray

More recently, the crypto PACs set sights on a congressional district in Westchester County and part of the Bronx in New York. Its incumbent Democrat, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, opposed two recent congressional votes that became instant litmus tests for the crypto industry's view of sitting lawmakers: whether they supported the House's Financial Innovation and Technology for the 21st Century Act (FIT21) or Congress' effort to overturn the SEC's crypto account policy. (The Republican-backed bill got "yes" votes from one-third of House Democrats – a surprising show of bipartisanship.)

The industry aimed a $2.1 million blowtorch of negative ads opposing Bowman, opening with, "What happened to decency? It's gone in Jamaal Bowman's New York."

Progressive House firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called it "disgusting and abnormal" for so much outside money to be dumped into the race in an effort to unseat Bowman – spending which went well beyond Fairshake to include other PACs.

To put it in perspective, Bowman's own fundraising had brought in about $4.3 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. In other words, when it came to campaign advertising in that district, the vast majority of messaging was paid for by Fairshake and other outside super PACs, not any of the candidates. And on Tuesday, incumbent Bowman was soundly defeated.

Neither Bowman's campaign nor that of the Democratic primary winner, George Latimer, responded to earlier requests for comment on crypto's role.

In a less high-profile primary battle in Alabama earlier this year, Shomari Figures' campaign managed to outpace several other Democratic contenders, though he'd raised a similar amount to his closest rival – both taking in less than $500,000 in direct donations. One difference: Fairshake devoted $2.4 million to advertising on Figures' behalf and spent more than $200,000 to oppose one of his fellow Democrats, according to election records.

"It's becoming increasingly common for super PACs to spend more than the candidates that they're supporting," said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at OpenSecrets, in an interview with CoinDesk.

Figures, a veteran of several government roles in Washington, once worked for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has so far been an impediment to crypto legislation progress as the chair of the Senate Banking Committee. But Figures indicated on his campaign website that he'd "embrace the new landscape around digital assets, like cryptocurrency, to stimulate innovation and technological advancement." The PACs are making big-money bets on such statements by untested politicians.

"It's really turning into one of the biggest forces of money in politics in this cycle," said Jordan Libowitz, vice president for communications at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who equated Fairshake's approach as a "money-in-politics speed run."

(Jesse Hamilton/CoinDesk)
(Jesse Hamilton/CoinDesk)

The amount of money still on hand – which was $109 million as of May 31, according to the PACs – keeps them "on everyone's radar," Libowitz said.

Crypto's political arms clearly aren't shy about spending a lot, but this isn't the industry's first time under the campaign-finance spotlight. In the congressional races two years ago, the sector nearly reached $100 million, all said. Some $74 million, though, was tied to the now-imprisoned Bankman-Fried and his cohorts at the defunct FTX crypto exchange.

When the dust settled on those previous elections, one in three members of Congress had taken FTX-tied money. And in the end, that money became a target for clawback in the company's multi-billion-dollar bankruptcy.

From their own pockets

A handful of businesses and individuals stand out as crypto's leading donors this time, including Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, the well-known digital assets investors behind a16z; Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase; and Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the twins behind the Gemini platform. They've all given so much money that their names have begun appearing among top political donors nationally.

A ranking maintained at had Andreessen and Horowitz breaking into the top 10 this year, with their most recent commitments likely moving them even higher on that list. That rarified air was visited in 2022 by Bankman-Fried, who was once ranked as the fourth most prolific donor in the country.

While the PACs have stayed out of the biggest political show of 2024, several crypto dignitaries have revealed their personal preferences in the race for the White House.

The Winklevoss brothers made news last week by saying they'd each commit $1 million to back Trump (though some of that was later refunded due to the pair exceeding campaign contribution limits). Before that, the Gemini executives – who have so far given matching sets of political donations in this cycle – had backed most of the serious contenders who tried to seize the Republican nomination away from Trump: Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. They each personally gave $2.5 million to Fairshake also, putting them among its top individual donors, but they declined to answer questions sent to a Gemini spokesperson.

Perianne Boring, the head of the Digital Chamber – a U.S. lobbying arm of the industry – had personally supported the campaign of Gov. DeSantis last year before backing crypto fan Robert Kennedy Jr. this year in his independent bid for the White House. Kristin Smith, who runs the Blockchain Association in Washington, had put her money behind Ramaswamy, who had – for a time – been the candidate with the most aggressive stance on the benefits of cryptocurrencies.

With Trump making a dramatic shift as a digital assets booster, Messari founder and CEO Ryan Selkis has been a very vocal supporter of the former president as the best bet for the industry, though Selkis has sent money to Trump, Ramaswamy and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who challenged President Joe Biden.

Others who cut some of the biggest personal checks for campaign support in this election are a trio of million-dollar donors to Fairshake, including Coinbase's Armstrong, who has also given more than $100,000 to individual lawmakers – a list of Republicans in the Senate and a more even mix of Democrats and Republicans in the House. The others are venture capitalist and Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson, and Phil Potter, a former Bitfinex and Tether executive.

Still, the bulk of the digital assets sector's political juice is coming from the biggest businesses. Coinbase, Ripple and a16z are leading the pack, though Jump Crypto (which is reportedly under CFTC investigation) recently chimed in with another $10 million (for $15 million total). USDC stablecoin issuer Circle Internet Financial and Payward Inc. (which is facing an SEC lawsuit) have also given significant amounts.

Bipartisan cash

Though many of the insiders leaned toward supporting Republicans, the crypto PACs have carefully distributed money across both parties.

"At Ripple, we believe the future of the crypto industry is not really a partisan issue at all," Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said in a statement to CoinDesk. "Many Republicans and Democrats alike are already supporting a pro-innovation and pro-compliance posture that could allow the U.S. to regain a position of leadership in this critical segment of technology. That same leadership in the development of the internet allowed massive job creation and geo-political benefits – and our elected officials have an opportunity to do that again here."

It's unusual for a super PAC to give to both parties, according to Bryner, so that bolsters the industry's non-partisan claim.

As for public engagement, Garlinghouse's and other companies have mostly limited themselves to press releases, curated blog posts and general public statements.

"We will continue to make contributions to candidates who believe in productive uses of blockchain technology," a spokesman of a16z offered as one example.

None of the companies have raised their hands to disclose whether they're supporting the Cedar Innovation Foundation, the dark-money operation backed by crypto interests. Though one common denominator for all of the PACs and Cedar is a shared spokesman, Josh Vlasto.

Not about crypto

The latest ads going after Bowman in New York illustrate another noteworthy component of crypto's political engagement: The industry-funded messages don't usually mention digital assets.

As demonstrated with the generic names of PACs such as Protect Progress and Defend American Jobs, crypto's campaign operations make some effort to avoid being obviously connected to crypto. Most of the time, the ads like those targeting Bowman or supporting others don't even mention their positions on cryptocurrencies, even if that's the purpose behind the spending. The ads are instead attempts to wound or bolster their core political credentials.

One exception was an effort to get crypto enthusiasts in California to rise up against Porter, because their demographic tended to overlap with her base in the state.

Otherwise, the spending represents unfiltered political expediency, trying to get as many members of Congress as possible on the pro side of crypto votes by expending colossal amounts of money to pay for whatever messages will be most effective in getting wins.

Business interests have long tried to steer U.S. elections, especially after the Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court opened a highway of "independent expenditures" by super PACs.

"Now they're doing it much more in the open," Libowitz said. "A company is not writing a $25 million check out of the goodness of its heart," he said, but because that firm expects it to help business.

Industry insiders are already seeing the powerful campaign-finance potential heightening how seriously their issues are being taken on Capitol Hill in this current session, long before the general election. And this year's presidential contest has suddenly latched onto digital assets, too – literally. Trump pivoted recently from his past suspicion of cryptocurrency to a new embrace – echoing the crypto-friendly positions of some of the Republican candidates who had competed with him earlier in the race, and opening his campaign to cryptocurrency donations. While Fairshake has so far indicated it's staying out of the Biden-Trump clash, that contest has a heavy potential effect on crypto's U.S. destiny.

"Our focus continues to be on supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers who will stop playing politics and pass clear and responsible rules of the road which will protect American consumers, spur American innovation and grow American jobs," Vlasto said in a statement.

As Ripple's Garlinghouse put it: "Those that stand in the way of that will certainly be on the wrong side of history."

The famously fast-tempo industry has slowly learned the lesson of the long game in Washington, and Vlasto said this campaign-finance effort is already preparing to influence races beyond November.

"We are employing a sustainable strategy and have built an effective operation that is well-positioned for the long term," he said. "We will have the resources to affect races in 2024 and beyond.”

Edited by Nikhilesh De and Nick Baker.


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CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

Jesse Hamilton

Jesse Hamilton is CoinDesk's deputy managing editor for global policy and regulation. He doesn't hold any crypto.