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Alan Grayson
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Did You Know Alan Grayson Is Running for Senate? Few Do.

The former Democratic star is running a campaign that few people seem to even know about while soliciting money from grassroots donors and retiring debt.

Alan Grayson was once one of the loudest Democrats in Congress. He’s now running for Senate in near silence while retiring years’ worth of campaign debt.

Grayson’s campaign eschews in-person events, only rarely appears in local media and attracts so little attention in Florida that at least one local Democratic Party leader didn’t know it existed until this week.

It is, however, actively soliciting donations from grassroots Democratic donors across the country — in what the former congressman says is part of a campaign to turn Florida blue in 2024.

Seven years after he last held elected office, the famously outspoken liberal politician and onetime MSNBC regular is running a new campaign in Florida’s Democratic Senate primary, saying he’s fighting for a chance to take on GOP Sen. Rick Scott in the general election. It’s the most recent comeback effort from Grayson, who served a total of three terms in the House after losing a previous Senate primary in 2016 and two House primaries in 2018 and 2022.

But his political operation is extremely unconventional, without the most basic components of typical statewide, professional campaigns. He spends almost no money on campaign staff. Grayson said this is all intentional.

“We’re campaigning on an individual basis,” he said in an interview. Technology, he said, has “moved beyond” the need for traditional in-person campaigning.

But his emphasis on online campaigning raises its own questions. Grayson doesn’t have a traditional campaign website, and he spends little time talking about his candidacy on social media sites like X. A once-active Facebook page of his hasn’t been updated since the summer of 2022.

This comes despite an audacious claim from Grayson — one pushed by an online fundraising solicitation that appears on Facebook and Instagram — that his campaign would register 1 million Democrats this year, enough to topple Scott in the fall.

In the interview this week, he did little to clarify how he would accomplish this or what his campaign’s plan is for success.

He said his campaigns over the last decade have run experiments on how best to reach and register voters through digital communication. Asked to share documentation of the experiments or make the political strategists heading the operation available for an interview, Grayson declined, saying he did not want to reveal “trade secrets” to a reporter. He did say he was sharing those findings, which were included in an eight-page PowerPoint presentation, with potential donors.

Asked about the inactivity of his Facebook page, Grayson insisted he had campaigned diligently on the social media platform nonetheless through ads and other posts. He defended his campaign more broadly from the accusation that it wasn’t putting in any real work, saying that his employees from past campaigns had worked diligently to create a model of voter outreach and registration that he was now following.

“I’ve had a very substantial number of people contact me directly and say they’re happy I’m running because they saw one of our posts or ads,” Grayson said.

A review of documents Grayson filed with the Federal Election Commission shows that he has spent thousands of dollars on digital ads since starting his campaign last summer and continuing through the end of the year. Some of his ads are visible through a search of the social media platform.

But those reports also show that the former congressman spent about $97,000 on credit card expenses and interest payments last year, more than one-third of the total $266,000 his campaign spent. On FEC reports, money owed by a campaign to a credit card for prior expenses is reported as debt.

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At the start of this year, Grayson’s campaign was $3.4 million in debt, with many payments owed carried over from previous campaigns.

The emphasis on paying down debts raises concerns about how Grayson is spending his money, say ethics experts, especially if the mostly small-dollar contributors who give to his campaign think their money is going toward registering voters or directly helping the former congressman win the primary.

“Anyone accepting a contribution has an obligation to use it in the way they promise,” said Stuart McPhail, director of campaign finance litigation for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

McPhail declined to weigh in specifically on Grayson’s campaign but pointed to presumed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign as an example of a candidate raising money ostensibly to run a presidential campaign but instead funneling much of the funds toward his personal legal defense.

Grayson said his campaign has carried debt for more than a decade and that it’s a common feature of campaigns, citing Ted Cruz’s campaign and a recent court decision that abolished the limit of how much money campaigns can raise after Election Day, with the purpose of repaying a candidate who loaned it money during the race.

“My goodness. It’s not unusual at all,” he said.

Grayson raised just $300,000 last year, with nearly all of it, about $285,000, coming from his own personal funds as a loan from the candidate. He raised another $15,000 from contributors.

Based on the filings, it’s unclear if Grayson had started running digital fundraising ads before the start of this year.

Grayson’s Senate campaign is widely viewed in Florida as a heavy underdog to former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who has received support from leading Florida Democrats and raised millions of dollars in contributions.

Until recently, Grayson would have been seen as a more formidable opponent in a statewide Democratic primary. He earned national recognition during his two stints in the House, winning over many grassroots progressives with a brash style that accused Republicans of supporting a health care plan that wanted sick patients to “die quickly.” After he lost reelection in Florida’s 8th Congressional District in 2010, he won election back to Congress two years later.

But his fortunes began to shift in 2016, when he badly lost a Democratic Senate primary in Florida to fellow Rep. Patrick Murphy, failing to reach even 20% of the vote after police reports of alleged domestic abuse became public. Two years later, he tried and failed to win his old seat in Congress. In 2022, he ran again for the House, this time in an open-seat race, but finished a distant third to eventual winner Max Frost.

This time around, some Democratic officials in the state say they weren’t aware Grayson was even running for office this year.

“I’ll tell you, this is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Ryan Ray, chair of the Leon County Democratic Party, when asked by a NOTUS reporter what he made of Grayson’s campaign.

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani said she was aware that Grayson was running after seeing a headline about his candidacy months ago but had little more information than that.

“I have not heard anything or seen anything,” said the state lawmaker, who has endorsed Mucarsel-Powell.

When filing as a candidate for Senate last year, the former congressman listed GraysonforCongress.com as his campaign’s official website. That site currently features a series of articles about gambling developments across the globe, primarily in Southeast Asia.

Grayson said he probably does not own the rights to that website anymore, and it is likely now operated by a different entity. He does have a current ActBlue online fundraising page, although in some versions, it features a video from his last Senate campaign, eight years ago, in 2016.

A separate website, GraysonforSenate.org, doesn’t include the old video or information typical of campaign sites outside of a 15-word, four-point mission list, including his pledge to register a million Democrats and defeat Scott. But links to a campaign YouTube page, Facebook and X account all return the user to the same fundraising page.

An X account that Grayson regularly maintains also makes no mention of his Senate campaign in his bio, and he rarely makes reference to his campaign when he does post.

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Maggie Severns contributed to this story.