WASHINGTON – A group of wealthy liberal donors who helped bankroll the Center for American Progress and other major advocacy groups on the left is developing a new big-money strategy that could boost state-level Democratic candidates and mobilize core party voters.
The plan, being crafted in private by a group of about 100 donors that includes billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros and San Francisco venture capitalist Rob McKay, seeks to give Democrats a stronger hand in the redrawing of district lines for state legislatures and the U.S. House.
The effort reflects a sense among many top donors on the left that Democrats missed opportunities in 2010 to shape the redistricting process and contain the tea-party wave that helped propel Republican victories around the country.
Discussions about the new plan began last week in Chicago at a four-day conference of the Democracy Alliance, the invitation-only donor group founded in 2005 to build the kind of network of think tanks and activist groups that has long flourished on the right.
The focus on ground-level politics would mark a new emphasis for the Democracy Alliance, whose members have helped finance influential national liberal groups such as Media Matters for America, the media watchdog group; America Votes, which coordinates the efforts of allied interest groups; and Catalist, which provides voter data. The Center for American Progress, created during the George W. Bush years, has emerged as one of Washington’s powerhouse think tanks, serving as an intellectual engine for the liberal movement and the Obama White House.
The alliance’s new president, Gara LaMarche, is pushing the group to take a fresh look at its overarching strategy as part of a regular three-year review of the organizations that it recommends for funding.
The existing groups have gotten to a certain scale that puts us in a better place, he said. The question we’re asking ourselves is, what are the capacities that need our resources now?
Early ideas that have garnered support include directing more money to state-level donor groups, voting rights projects and organizations working to rally the rising American electorate, LaMarche said.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that mobilization and engagement of women, Latinos, African-Americans and young people is the way to win elections, he said, and there’s a strong desire to invest more heavily in those communities.
Many of the group’s top contributors come from the party’s liberal wing. That was evident last week in the conference’s theme – A New Progressive Era? – and the focus by speakers such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on economic inequality.
The Democracy Alliance does not make contributions itself. Instead, donors who join the alliance, known as partners, are required to contribute at least $200,000 a year to groups it recommends.
The system has pumped an estimated $500 million into an array of organizations on the left over the past nine years, according to the alliance.
The group’s leaders had originally hoped the sums would be larger by now. By comparison, a network of politically active nonprofits backed by the Kochs and other conservative donors raised $400 million just in the 2012 elections.
But alliance membership has been ticking up recently, group officials said. Well-known Democratic patrons such as San Francisco hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and Houston trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn joined in the past few years. Eleven new donors have come aboard in the last several months alone, officials said.
In Chicago, alliance partners pledged to give about $30 million this year to 20 liberal groups endorsed by the group, a slight boost over the amount raised for the same organizations last year.
A topline concern of many attendees: keeping Democratic control of the Senate. Speakers included Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as White House political director David Simas, who discussed how the president’s health care legislation can be a boon to Democrats on the ballot.
There’s a lot of anxiety about the midterms, said McKay, the outgoing chairman, who said substantial investment this year will go to local and state minimum-wage campaigns that can help drive turnout for federal races.