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'This is becoming dangerous': A Miami lawmaker raises money with fear-inducing emails

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, is among the nation's largest small-dollar fundraisers during the 2018 election cycle.
Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, is among the nation's largest small-dollar fundraisers during the 2018 election cycle. Courtesy of David Richardson

Election Day is about six months away, but for David Richardson's congressional campaign every day is doomsday. At least if you read his fundraising emails.

Here's a recent sampling of email subject lines from the Miami Beach state representative who is running as a Democrat to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen:

"we cannot afford this again"

"we just REALLY SCREWED UP!"

"this is becoming dangerous"

"REALLY REALLYYY BAD for Democrats!"

The emails, sent twice a day, eventually ask the recipient to give money to Richardson's campaign, and though the strategy has led to thousands of small-dollar contributions in a competitive Democratic primary, some Democrats question the ethics and long-term viability of sending dire emails every few hours.

"I don't think we're doing a good enough job for painting a vision of what the Democratic Party can be all about," said Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, who recently criticized the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for sending a fundraising email to supporters with the subject line "Mueller FIRED." Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating any links or potential coordination between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government, has not been fired.

"I don't think it's inappropriate to be urgent or even angry or partisan. It's just that you can't do that morning, noon and night and you can't tell people the republic is falling apart every five minutes," Schatz said.

Richardson says donors from around the country respond to his emails and donate because he embraces Medicare-for-all and wants to impeach President Donald Trump.

"We’re using positive messages but also urgency because this primary is really important," Richardson said. "I can only speak to my own emails, but I do not believe that we’ve said anything that is untruthful or misleading. It would not be my position to put out an email that was patently false."

Richardson says he's gotten positive responses about his emails from supporters, and sending emails with dire messages is giving Richardson a financial edge in the competitive Democratic primary for Ros-Lehtinen's seat, where the victor in August will be favored to win the seat in November. He's raised $434,254.68 in small-dollar donations — those under $200 — since announcing his candidacy in June 2017, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Richardson ranks sixth in small-dollar donations out of about 1,200 Democrats nationwide seeking to get or keep a House seat this year, and the five candidates ahead of him have all gained substantial national attention for contesting a special election or challenging a high-profile Republican hated by Democrats, like House Speaker Paul Ryan or House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes.

And Richardson is well ahead of his Democratic challengers in the race to replace Ros-Lehtinen when it comes to small-dollar donations that primarily come through email. Former University of Miami President Donna Shalala raised $11,432 in small-dollar donations; former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman $56,180, former judge Mary Barzee Flores $59,921 and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez $16,724.

Richardson says many prominent Democratic donors in South Florida are staying out of the competitive primary for Ros-Lehtinen's seat, necessitating an aggressive email fundraising effort.

"It became clear early on that I would have to look beyond traditional Democratic donors in South Florida. I’ve looked for non-traditional ways to raise money," Richardson said. "I’m not a candidate that has thousands of friends to max out to my campaign."

Richardson's primary opponents are also sending fundraising emails. Barzee Flores sent an email earlier this month with the subject "The worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico's history."

"Please support my candidacy so we can get Puerto Rico and its residents back on their feet: All amounts — big or small — go a long way towards building our campaign to win the November midterm," said the email, with a link to donate included.

Richardson's campaign says he's received about 31,000 online contributions from nearly 18,000 people, and about 98 percent of people who donated gave $100 or less, with an average online donation of $24.

"Reminiscent of the viral campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Tim Canova, Richardson’s average online donation is $24, compared to Sanders' average of $27 and Canova's average of $22," his campaign said in a news release.

But Sanders and Canova, who each raised millions through small-dollar online donations, share a fate Richardson is trying to avoid. Both lost their Democratic primaries.

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