Liberals Meeting to Set '04 Strategy
Sunday 25 May 2003
Labor, Rights Groups Focus on Getting Out the Vote to Help Democrats
Major liberal organizations, from labor unions to civil rights groups, have begun to meet privately to develop a coordinated strategy to oppose President Bush's reelection in 2004. Their goal is to buttress the Democratic Party and its nominee by orchestrating voter mobilization and independent media in as many as a dozen battleground states.
All of the organizations are free to accept unlimited contributions, or "soft money" from wealthy individuals, unions and corporations. These donations are the kind that the new campaign finance law prohibits political parties and federal candidates from collecting.
Together, these organizations have the potential to target $40 million to $50 million in key states including Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The amount could be much higher if organized labor invests heavily and a new, pro-Democratic committee gearing up to run television advertisements is successful. In addition, these organizations are expected to play a crucial role in Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts.
Liberal organizations have backed Democratic presidential candidates in the past, but never have they been able to work together to maximize the value of every dollar by minimizing overlap in direct mail, person-to-person voter contact or television advertising.
Leaders of these organizations contend they are driven to work together by the threat of massive spending by Bush and the Republican Party; by the undermining of Democratic Party finances, which have suffered from the new prohibition on large, "soft money" contributions, and by the likelihood of continued legislative and regulatory setbacks if Republicans maintain control of the government.
"The Democratic Party goes into this next election weak on money, weak on the ground. There is a huge vacuum for us to fill," said one of the organizers who asked not to be quoted by name. "Organizations that agree they have to defeat a Republican president want to come together and figure out the best way to do it. This is an uncommon event in the history of Democratic organizational politics."
Emily's List President Ellen Malcolm, who hosted the groups' first meeting on May 8, said, "There is a tremendous amount of common motivation given what the Bush administration has been doing to virtually every issue we care about."
In addition to Malcolm, other leaders of the drive are Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club; Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union; Harold Ickes, a former Clinton White House aide who is setting up a special committee to raise money for independent TV advertising during the campaign; and Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO who now runs the labor-financed Partnership for America's Families.
Among the other groups at the first meeting who are expected at a larger gathering in early June are the NAACP, the League of Conservation Voters, NARAL-Pro Choice America, the pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Money, and the damaging effects of the 2001 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law on the Democratic Party, are two key factors driving the mobilization effort.
"We are looking at a president who can raise $250 million if he wants to, and the RNC [Republican National Committee] can match that. We're talking about half a billion dollars," said a political operative for one of the interest groups.
He pointed out that in 2000, the RNC raised $213 million in the kind of "hard money" that remains legal under McCain-Feingold, while the DNC that year raised $124 million in "hard money," its best year ever when the party had an incumbent president to help pull in contributions.
The Bush campaign is expected to raise at least $200 million to spend by September 2004, while Democratic presidential candidates will have about $48 million to spend before the convention in July if they accept public subsidies.
Many labor and liberal interest groups say they are convinced that the presidency offers the Democrats its best chance to win one branch of the federal government, as GOP majorities in the House and Senate look tough to defeat.
Historically, efforts to get liberal groups to work under a coordinated strategy have run into problems. Few organization leaders have been willing to cede power; competitive fundraising strategies have emerged among groups appealing to similar constituencies; and fundamental agenda conflicts forced splits, such as those between environmentalists and the more pro-development labor movement.
This election cycle, some participants say, will be different.
"The Democrats have always been reliant upon liberal special interest groups to fund the Democratic National Committee," said Republican National Committee spokesman James Dyke. "Now it looks like they have just set up an organization that will work with instead of for the DNC."
Dyke argued that the emergence of a liberal alliance vindicated Republican arguments that the new campaign finance law undermines political parties.
The McCain-Feingold law passed last year restricted contributions from individuals to a $2,000 maximum when made to federal candidates, and $25,000 when made to parties. This is known as "hard money." The law bars candidates and parties from raising unlimited donations, or soft money, from wealthy people, corporations and unions.
Most of the groups at the May 8 meeting at Emily's List's offices in Washington have special committees, known by their tax designations as "501c4s" or "527s," that are generally not restricted by McCain-Feingold. Most are competing for large contributions from many of the "soft money" donors to the Democratic Party.
While no umbrella structure has been developed, participants discussed ways to coordinate messages through the campaign and, in eight to 12 key battleground states, appointing "traffic cops" who would try to find the most cost-effective methods to contact voters, run ads and build coalitions.
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