Davies said that many leaders of chambers with longstanding Democratic majorities are reluctant to accept help from outside groups, figuring that they should be able handle lawmaking by themselves. By contrast, Davies said, many Republican legislative majorities are of relatively recent vintage, and the sudden need to run a legislative chamber created a strong demand among Republicans for the kind of fill-in-the-blank assistance ALEC provides.
At the same time, many states with significant numbers of Democrats in the Legislature, such as California, New York and Illinois, can rely on large, entrenched staffs of aides, noted Thom Little of the bipartisan State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Many Republican majorities, by contrast, operate in smaller states with fewer aides to rely on.
“If someone can hand a legislator a ready set of talking points, that can be a big help,” Little said.
Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
The final two challenges for PLAN are perhaps the most crucial: money and message.
PLAN is entering a world in which ALEC’s budget outpaces CPA’s 3-1, mainly because ALEC’s conservative message resonates strongly with corporations with deep pockets. This revenue base has allowed ALEC, with an annual budget of $6 million and a staff of 30, to assemble top-notch materials and put on first-rate events for lawmakers.
By contrast, liberal groups have historically had to rely on a more diffuse roster of supporters, including foundations, unions, environmental groups and, most recently, wealthy donors. PLAN officials confirmed that venture capitalist Andy Rappaport, a big donor to Democratic 527s during the 2004 election, is pledging support to PLAN, alongside other institutional and individual donors.
Even with such backing, Sirota acknowledges that PLAN faces long-term financial challenges.
“I think it will take a monumental effort, both strategically and in fundraising, to counter ALEC’s business support in an effective way,” he said.
As for message, PLAN has not yet settled on which issues it will push, but observers say it could benefit once again from mimicking ALEC’s model. In recent years, ALEC has studiously avoided taking stances on divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage in favor of advancing, in the group’s words, “Jeffersonian principles of ... limited government.”
Can liberals, a famously fractious fraternity, keep up the same degree of unanimity? Stay tuned.
While both Sirota and Doherty emphasize the value of pushing issues with broad appeal, they also openly use the term “progressive,” which suggests to many insiders a spot solidly on the left of the ideological spectrum. Moreover, Sirota doesn’t rule out the possibility that social issues could enter the mix, though they would end up being secondary.
“We are going to have a progressive agenda, and I don’t think we have to make any bones about that,” Doherty said. “Whether that’s to the right of left or some other organizations, we’ll have to figure that out.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.