Crypto-Funded Pandemic-Prevention PAC Winds Down After Spending $24 Million

  • Protect Our Future, backed by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, spent more than $24 million this year.
  • The super PAC is part of a broader effort to support pandemic prevention advocates in Congress.
  • Now, after boosting candidates including the likely first Gen Z member of Congress, the spending is over.

Protect Our Future, a super PAC backed by a cryptocurrency billionaire that boosts Democrats who champion pandemic prevention, quickly became a major player in this year’s primaries after its establishment in January.

As of this week, the group has spent more than $24 million in 18 Democratic House primaries nationwide — mostly on television ads — promoting upstart candidates who span the party’s ideological spectrum while ruffling plenty of feathers along the way. 

In total, 15 of the candidates the group spent significant sums of money on have emerged victorious from their primaries, the most recent being Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old gun violence prevention advocate who’s set to become the first Generation Z member of Congress after winning his party’s nomination for a deep blue seat in Florida.

“He is a good example of a number of progressive champions that we’ve supported,” Michael Sadowsky, president of Protect Our Future, said of Frost. “We think pandemic prevention is a cause area that can appeal throughout the ideological spectrum, and can have a broad coalition for it.” 

Funded almost entirely by FTX cryptocurrency exchange CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, Protect Our Future has been the third-most prolific outside spender across either party this year, putting it on par with other major players like the Democratic-run Senate Majority PAC and United Democracy Project, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s new super PAC. 

Perhaps the PAC’s best-known investment was in Oregon’s newly-drawn 6th congressional district this spring, where it spent a whopping $11 million in an effort to elect Carrick Flynn, an “effective altruist” and academic researcher with a background in pandemic prevention.

But that effort largely backfired. Flynn lost his primary by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and the sheer scale of the spending generated anger about the seat being “bought” along with suspicions about whether the spending served Bankman-Fried’s financial interests in cryptocurrency, which Sadowsky has denied. 

“I think there was kind of a narrative that got created around us being about crypto,” said Sadowsky. “And we should have done a better job making our focus on pandemic prevention clear.”

With a successful but tumultuous first primary season nearing its end, key players involved with Protect Our Future and the burgeoning, bipartisan pandemic-prevention movement told Insider that their high-dollar spending experiment is winding down, at least for now. As the PAC sunsets its operations this summer, the people behind it reflected on their foray into political spending, which came with both wins and some controversies.

Gabe Bankman-Fried — the younger brother of the cryptocurrency billionaire and the director of the nonprofit Guarding Against Pandemics (GAP) — says he wants to avoid being seen as partisan and believes his group and others can have a greater impact in primaries than in general elections. He said GAP, whose affiliated PAC has donated small sums to both Democrats and Republicans, plans to spend the coming months “setting our priorities for the next session of Congress.”

“I think over time, people will get that we’re another public interest group, like the climate movement or anything else,” said Gabe Bankman-Fried, whose nonprofit group endorses candidates who pledge to “champion” pandemic prevention in addition to lobbying and advising lawmakers on the issue.

“It’s too early to say what we’ll do next cycle,” said Sadowsky. “We’ll have to look at what happens next Congress.”

‘Let’s put a million behind this guy’  

Frost serves as a key example of a successful progressive candidate backed by the pandemic prevention movement. Alongside staple issues like Medicare for All and tackling the climate crisis, Frost included an entire section devoted to the issue on his website.

“As an organizer, something I’m always thinking about is how do we win hearts and minds,” Frost told Insider in May, mentioning his support for pandemic-proofing buildings. “I think now’s the time to court public opinion, and get people excited about research and retrofitting buildings. I think as time passes, it’s gonna be harder.”

In mid-May, Protect Our Future committed to spending $1 million on Frost, most of which ultimately went into a television ad campaign.

“I made the pitch: I was like, let’s put a million behind this guy, I think he’s going to be a real champion,” said Sean McElwee, the founding executive director of the left-leaning polling firm Data for Progress and an advisor to Protect Our Future. McElwee provided Insider with a memo making his case, which included previously unreleased polling data showing that Frost’s name recognition stood at just 3% in the Orlando-area district in May, before the group began running over $700,000 in television ads.

Frost speaks at the fundraiser as Guarding Against Pandemics Director Gabe Bankman-Fried and Progressive Change Campaign Committee founders Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green look on in Washington, DC on May 10, 2022.

Frost speaks at a fundraiser as Guarding Against Pandemics Director Gabe Bankman-Fried looks on in Washington, DC on May 10, 2022.

Bryan Metzger/Insider

While touting the effect of the ad campaign — which he said was likely most effective in warding off pro-Israel super PACs that have been particularly hostile towards progressive candidates this cycle — McElwee made clear that Frost’s own unique talents and attributes were key to making that campaign successful. 

“Maxwell hustled like I’ve never seen before,” said McElwee. “Like, just always on the phone making calls, always looking to build stronger relationships, and I think his endorsements speak to that.”

Frost’s campaign declined to provide comment for this story.

Broadly, this year saw unprecedented levels of super PAC intervention in Democratic primaries, driven in large part by the increasing appeal of shaping the direction of the party through political spending.

As Protect Our Future has become a player in that space, it’s faced a slew of questions about what its true intentions are. Critics point to the fact that Sam Bankman-Fried has testified before Congress on the subject of cryptocurrency regulation and has given $2 million to an explicitly pro-crypto PAC.

“You just can’t help but think, yeah, they’re weighing in to curry favor with members of Congress and to influence the regulations that are being proposed right now,” Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia told NBC News in April as Protect Our Future spent nearly $2 million boosting her primary opponent, fellow incumbent Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath.

But the pandemic prevention advocates reject that claim. Gabe Bankman-Fried sarcastically likened the idea to “the five-dimensional chess we’re playing,” and both he and Sadowsky told Insider that Sam Bankman-Fried plays little role in the day-to-day decision-making at their organizations.

“You can talk to any of the candidates that I’ve endorsed at GAP,” he told Insider. “I have not mentioned cryptocurrency to a single one of them.”

Sadowsky and others were also eager to highlight that among Protect Our Future’s endorsees are progressives — including Robert Garcia in California, Becca Balint in Vermont, and Jasmine Crockett in Texas — who may not be particularly friendly to crypto interests. 

“There’s this idea that like, Sam is doing this for crypto, Sam doesn’t like progressives,” said McElwee referring to Bankman-Fried. “If Sam didn’t like progressives, why would he spend a million dollars getting a progressive elected?”

Developing the political muscle to prevent the next pandemic

For pandemic prevention advocates, the theory of the case is as follows: on the heels of a once-in-a-century pandemic that brought astronomical economic, societal, and human costs, now is the time to take the necessary steps to ensure that the country can better withstand a future biological catastrophe. But in order to accomplish that, policymakers must be willing to spend the time and political capital necessary to see it through — something that they’re not currently incentivized to do. 

“You can’t cut a ribbon in front of a pandemic that never happened,” said Sadowsky.

To further that goal, the Bankman-Fried brothers have developed a political operation that seeks to elect candidates — and cultivate incumbents — who are prepared to do just that.

“I want to build a coalition of members of Congress that care about the issue enough to do things on their own, and we’re going to have their back,” said Gabe Bankman-Fried.

First, both Republican and Democratic candidates are vetted and endorsed by GAP, the group run by Gabe Bankman-Fried and largely funded by his older brother, Sam.

Gabe Bankman-Fried said he’s broadly interested in working with candidates who can at least “feel some ownership” over the issue. “Most people that run for political office are not biosecurity experts,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect them to be.”

Bankman-Fried provided Insider with one of the GAP’s questionnaires, which asks candidates to commit to supporting President Joe Biden’s pandemic preparedness plan, increased funding for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and strengthening regulations to minimize biosecurity risks surrounding laboratory and research facilities.

Once the candidate earns GAP’s endorsement, they are likely to receive significant support in outside spending from a super PAC. If they’re a Democrat, that’s Protect Our Future.

But if they’re a Republican, then they may earn the support of American Dream Federal Action, a super PAC funded entirely by Ryan Salame, a colleague of Sam Bankman-Fried at FTX. That PAC has spent over $11 million backing its endorsed candidates in 14 GOP primary elections this year.

By virtue of campaign finance rules, the PACs can’t communicate with GAP during the election cycle, though both super PACs acknowledge that they take GAP’s endorsements into account, and Gabe Bankman-Fried noted that the groups may exchange information after the election cycle has concluded.

In a statement to Insider, American Dream Federal Action Executive Director Brinck Slattery said his organization looks for “policy expertise wherever it can be found, including the work of bipartisan organizations like Guarding Against Pandemics,” while caveating that the group “acts independently of any other organization in carrying out its mission to elect Republicans who are committed to protecting America’s biosecurity.”

Thus, the growing pandemic prevention movement will soon count dozens of lawmakers among its ranks — setting the stage for what advocates hope will be a fruitful 118th Congress, even under a potentially divided government.

“When the government is divided, policymakers are hungry for the few things that they can agree on,” said Gabe Bankman-Fried. “I think our issue is one of the ones that they can work together on, and get something done.”

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