ACT Aims to Have Long-Term Impact
Planning is under way to keep America Coming Together — the largest liberal soft-money organization — active beyond the November election, even though some of its biggest advocates acknowledge that donors may not be willing to contribute large sums of money to Congressional candidates in a non-presidential year.
ACT, which has so far collected $75 million in contributions and pledges to fund voter-registration and mobilization efforts in 17 presidential battleground states, has established a five-person committee headed by veteran Democratic operative Gina Glantz to gauge what kind of role ACT should play beyond this campaign cycle. The other four slots will be filled by members of ACT’s 13-member board.
“We don’t go in with any preconceived notions about what the future is,” Glantz said, but rather “with a determination that we should arrive at some options.”
Glantz was a top official in two unsuccessful presidential primary bids, as campaign manager for former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in 2000 and as a senior adviser to the 2004 campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).
From now to Nov. 2, the task force will analyze the feasibility of keeping ACT going through 2006, looking specifically at what tactics and techniques have proven successful in the current election cycle.
“It is important that we give a hard, independent analysis of what worked and what didn’t,” said Ellen Malcolm, president of both ACT and EMILY’s List. “It’s an important piece of building for the future.”
Glantz said that much of the work concerning the organization’s future will be done before Nov. 2, to avoid a scenario in which “the day after the election ACT closes down.”
ACT co-founder Harold Ickes says that despite current optimism, structural concerns make the future of ACT an open question.
“It is not going to be easily done to keep it going,” said Ickes. “This country is so candidate-oriented and single-issue-oriented. How do you keep it alive without the focus of a high-visibility presidential campaign?”
Ickes said the Media Fund, another soft-money “527” group that he helped establish in the wake of passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, will cease to exist after this fall.
The Media Fund has orchestrated in key battleground states a series of issue-advocacy commercials that are critical of President Bush.
Combined, the Media Fund and ACT plan to raise and spend more than $100 million for the 2004 election, financed largely by a passel of wealthy individuals, many of whom have cut checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The question facing ACT is whether these same people who are currently united in their distaste for Bush will feel that same urge to donate to an organization that seeks to bolster Democratic candidates further down the ballot.
If recent history is any guide, the road to sustainability could be a rocky one.
Following Bush’s signing of BCRA, which banned national-party committees from raising and spending soft money, several Democratic groups were created and staffed by former House and Senate operatives.
These organizations, known as 527s for the section of tax code that governs their activities, sought to serve as an alternate — and legal — conduit for the $292 million that had been raised by the four national party committees during the 2002 cycle.
But within a year of their founding, both the New House PAC and the Democratic Senate Majority Fund were shuttered due to a lack of fundraising.
The Leadership Forum, a Republican group designed to collect soft money for House races, continues to operate, but it raised just $335,000 through March 31.
No 527 organization for Senate Republicans even got off the ground.
However, sources familiar with the failure of the Democratic Congressional 527s argue that it is inaccurate to compare that effort with the future of ACT.
Whereas ACT has Malcolm and Ickes, two of the most influential and experienced Democratic fundraisers, the Congressional efforts were manned by staffers who had far less expertise asking wealthy individuals for campaign cash.
The organizations were further weakened by BCRA’s ban on Members of Congress making any fundraising pitch for soft money or even attending an event where soft money is raised.
Malcolm would not pledge that she would be back with the group after the 2004 elections — a potential blow to the future sustainability of the organization.
“I haven’t made the decision,” Malcolm said. “I am very interested in making sure we figure out what the future is for ACT.”
The loss of Malcolm would be a major blow to any effort to keep up ACT’s momentum from the Bush-Kerry race, sources said.
To be sure, it’s theoretically possible that in a nonpresidential election, much of the soft money that has been devoted to the Bush-Kerry showdown could be dedicated instead to Senate and House races.
And Malcolm insisted that ACT, regardless of her next step, has already made a significant contribution to Democrats up and down the ticket that can be harnessed in one way or another next cycle.
“We will come out of this election with better voter files and more info about voters and what is motivating them,” Malcolm explained.
On this point, Ickes agreed. “I do think we will end up with a real asset in the voter files,” he said.
In addition, Malcolm said that ACT has trained thousands of field workers who are now prepared to “be the leaders of future efforts.” ACT is also cultivating a small-dollar donor base that is considered crucial to gaining financial parity with Republicans.
But whether these new grassroots assets turn out to be worth anything depends on how well they perform in November. The bar is high: Democrats are using the election as an attempt to reclaim their voter-turnout supremacy from Republicans, who in 2002 instituted a “72 Hour Program” that was credited with delivering GOPers control of the Senate and picking up six seats in the House.
Due to the amount of time and resources dedicated to this effort, huge results are expected from ACT in Democratic circles.
“If it turns out that we are successful … there is nothing like success to attract attention and support,” Ickes said.
Ickes added, however: “It is not going to be easy to figure out how to keep this beast going.”