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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Right-wing Think Tanks Support the GOP Surge in the States

Most alert Democrats are aware that our party has been out-organized in too many states where we should be stronger. But the really bad news is that it’s probably worse than we thought. That’s the conclusion that is hard to avoid after reading Patrick Caldwell’s post “Outmatched” at The American Prospect.
Elated as all Dems were to re-elect President Obama, the painful truth is that we have failed to match the Republicans at the state level. They have paid much more attention to building political political infrastructure, and it is starting to pay off, big time.
Like many Dems, I had been worried about this trend for a while, noting mounting GOP gains in state legislatures. 2010 was a wake-up call. But what really brought it home to me was the recent fiasco in Michigan. As Caldwell explains:

It seemed unfathomable that Michigan, once the cradle of a thriving and unionized American workforce, could have turned overnight into a right-to-work state. But then many traditions have been upended since the 2010 midterm elections in which Republicans took control of both legislative chambers in 26 states. (Though a few states flipped sides in the November election, that number still holds.) Longtime progressive and purple states, newly under Republican control, have turned into Texas-lite. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature stripped public employees of collective-bargaining rights. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage and a Republican-held legislature cut health benefits for the poor. Early this year, Republicans in North Carolina (a state under Republican control for the first time in more than a century) approved cutting unemployment benefits by a third.

Credit the Republicans with politically-astute powers of observation and a commitment to exploit weaknesses of their adversaries. They spotted our achilles heel — relatively weak state parties in a few big states — and made the most of it. Demographic trends are very much on our side. But demography is destiny only up to a point — and then it isn’t anymore. History is replete with examples of forces with superior advantages getting shellacked by smart strategy. It applies to politics as well as military conflict.
Caldwell explains how the Republicans mobilized some of their statewide takeovers:

Several groups can be thanked for the rightward swing in state policy. Progressives have lately focused much of their attention on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded alliance that crafts model policy and even bills for state legislators (it had done so in secret for almost three decades until Freedom of Information Act requests revealed the extent of its work in 2011). But in Michigan’s case and others, key policy ideas had been incubating for years–sometimes decades–across a more loosely knit but effective web of conservative think tanks working at the state level.
Sitting atop this coalition is the State Policy Network (SPN), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. “We’re a service organization dedicated to encouraging state-focused think tanks,” Meredith Turney, the group’s director of strategic communications, said by e-mail, “so we spend most of our time in the states, not D.C.” Thomas Roe Jr.–a member of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisers, longtime board member for the Heritage Foundation, and founder of his own think tank, the South Carolina Policy Council–started the organization in 1992.
SPN’s modest budget–$5.1 million in 2011, according to the latest available figures–pales in comparison to the Heritage Foundation’s roughly $80 million annual budget, and it operates with a light touch. Unlike ALEC, which dictates corporations’ policy interests from the top down, SPN does not enforce strict adherence to a particular dogma. Affiliates have latitude to pursue the occasional heterodox project; the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for example, normally pushes for minimal taxes and regulations (the think tank receives all of the proceeds* from Rick Perry’s pre-presidential campaign book) but also advocates for criminal-justice reforms and reductions to prison sentences. Still, the group’s members have worked together to push what they call free-market principles. Theirs is a long-term mission, requiring years of advocacy to convert what often start out as fringe concepts into palatable policy.
Various state-level think tanks in the network have also served as launching pads for Republican politicians. As a 2007 National Review article on SPN pointed out, before Jeff Flake successfully ran for the House of Representatives in 2000, he served as executive director of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute; Mike Pence oversaw the Indiana Policy Review Foundation before he entered the U.S. House in 2001. As of January, Flake is now a U.S. senator and Pence the governor of Indiana.

Caldwell goes into much more detail in his article about the particulars of conservative think tank strategy, noting that “SPN advises member think tanks on fundraising and running a nonprofit and helps train them in communicating ideas.” What is starkly clear from his article is that these think tanks excite and energize their constituencies to an impressive extent, apparently more than do their progressive counterparts. He quotes Mark Schmitt noting that “there’s more of them and they’re bigger” than are liberal think tanks. They also relate to constituencies at the state level more effectively.
Schmitt notes further that conservatives may have a natural advantage at the state level to some extent, being more about “states rights.” Caldwell adds that Dems tend to spend more money on causes than strengthening our organizational capacity. he concedes that there have been pro-Democratic think tanks successes, like Policy Matters Ohio, which “provided the analytical backbone for a voter-approved amendment in 2006 that automatically ties the state’s minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index” and Washington state’s Economic Opportunity Institute, which mobilized “a coalition that convinced Seattle to pass a paid sick-day policy.” yet, as Caldwell adds,

…Still, for all the individual victories, the broader change pushed by conservative state think tanks has eluded progressives. “Since we’ve really had a retrenchment of economic rights over the last generation,” says Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters Ohio, “and a retrenchment of economic equity, it’s hard to make the case that liberal think tanks have been very effective on the economic front.”

Dems need to face the fact that, going forward, we are likely to have very few candidates as charismatic and/or capable as President Obama. He is an exceptionally-strong candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with his race. It is entirely possible that the Republicans will run a better-prepared presidential candidate in the not too-distant future. If Dems don’t have a stronger infrastucture at the state level than we do now to check the GOP, we could pay a dear price.
It doesn’t have to be that way — especially if the Democrats will now pay closer attention to building state-wide institutions that can support progressive causes and candidates. Nor does it mean we have to do it the way the Republicans did it. We have to draw on our unique strengths and repair our particular weaknesses. But we must be every bit as creative and driven as the Republicans have been. However we do it, this is a challenge we must accept to prevent a Republican takeover of all America’s political institutions and to make the most of our demographic advantage in forging a better future for our party and the nation..

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