Inside the vast liberal conspiracy

Private political networks have become prominent in U.S. politics. | AP Photo/Getty

6/23/14 5:01 AM EDT

Picture this: millionaires and billionaires gathering under tight security in fancy hotels with powerful politicians and operatives to plot how their network of secret-money groups can engineer a permanent realignment of American politics.

Only, it’s not the Koch brothers. It’s the liberal Democracy Alliance.

The 21 groups at the core of the Democracy Alliance’s portfolio intend to spend $374 million during the midterm election cycle — including nearly $200 million this year — to boost liberal candidates and causes in 2014 and beyond, according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO.

While growing sums of that cash are being spent vilifying the billionaire conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch over their own network’s political spending, the documents reveal the extent to which the Democracy Alliance network mirrors the Kochs’ — and is obsessed with it.

(Also on POLITICO: Kochs launch new super PAC for midterm fight)

“Conservatives, particularly the Koch Brothers, are playing for keeps with an even more pronounced financial advantages than in recent election cycles,” reads the introduction to a 62-page briefing book provided to donors ahead of April’s annual spring meeting of the DA, as the club is known, at Chicago’s tony Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The briefing book reveals a sort of DA-funded extra-party political machine that includes sophisticated voter databases and plans to mobilize pivotal Democratic voting blocs, air ads boosting Democratic candidates, while also — perhaps ironically — working to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Democracy Alliance officials did not dispute the authenticity of the document but declined to comment on it.

It makes public for the first time details of the complete organizational flowchart of the big-money left, including up-to-date budget figures and forecasts, program goals and performance assessments for the 21 core DA groups, including the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, America Votes and the Obama-linked Organizing for Action.

It also includes a “Progressive Infrastructure Map,” with 172 other groups to which the DA recommends that its rich liberal members — including billionaire financier George Soros and Houston trial lawyers Amber and Steve Mostyn — donate.

Private political networks like those backed by the DA and the Koch operation have become increasingly prominent in American politics. Over the past seven years, federal court decisions including the Supreme Court’s seminal 2010 Citizens United ruling have expanded megacheck spending in elections. Money and control have increasingly migrated from political parties and candidates’ campaigns, which still must abide by contribution limits and disclosure requirements, to outside groups like those in the DA that can accept unlimited — and mostly anonymous — contributions.

That heightened influence has brought increased criticism of donors, particularly directed at the Kochs by liberals — including multiple groups on the Democracy Alliance’s map. But the prospect of such scrutiny being directed back at the DA was enough of a concern that the group distributed a memo to board members ahead of its Chicago meeting including suggested responses to questions about the club’s secretive rules and closed-press policy, as well as photos of reporters who it was feared might crash the Ritz shindig.
“The truth is political strategists and funders frequently gather to discuss their plans without inviting reporters to listen in,” said DA spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller. “The Democracy Alliance was organized to provide a forum for people with a shared set of principles to coordinate their resources more efficiently and effectively to achieve their common goals – it doesn’t represent a single industry or family, and doesn’t give money directly to organizations.”

But when it comes to sheer volume of cash, the DA isn’t in the same league as the Koch network. While the DA takes credit for steering more than $500 million in donations to recommended groups since its creation in 2005, the Koch network spent more than $400 million in 2012 alone.

Koch network donors are expected to provide almost every penny of the Koch operation’s $290 million 2014 spending goal. By contrast, DA donors — or “partners,” in the club’s parlance — are projected to provide a maximum of $39 million toward the $200 million 2014 spending goal of the 21 core DA groups, according to the briefing booklet. That means most of the cash raised by DA-linked groups actually comes from donors, institutions or revenue streams outside the DA’s cloistered ranks. Another difference: While DA partners are required to donate at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups, they ultimately decide to which group their money goes. The Koch network, on the other hand, collects contributions in the nonprofit political hub Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which then distributes the cash mostly as it sees fit to groups in the network.

But the DA document distributed in Chicago does call into question some of the plaintiff woe-is-us rhetoric bandied about by Democrats griping about the Koch brothers’ sophisticated efforts to use their checkbooks to manipulate American democracy.
Even though the DA’s cash projections pale in comparison to the Koch network, which is in a financial class by itself and rivals the official parties’ spending, they exceed those of most other outside spending operations on the right and left. And, perhaps more significantly, the briefing highlights what liberals believe is superior coordination between its deep-pocketed labor unions, outside groups and even the administration of President Barack Obama that has allowed their side to spend its big money more efficiently than conservatives.

An assessment of the Center for American Progress and its sister group the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which are projected to receive as much as $5.5 million from DA members this year, boasts of its work on gun control with the administration and other deep-pocketed groups in the DA’s infrastructure map.

“Last year, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, American Progress accelerated the launch of its initiative to reduce gun violence, working closely with the White House to unveil policy solutions, and it collaborated with American for Responsible Solutions, ProgressNow, and others to establish networks of activists working to prevent gun violence in the United States,” read the briefing.
It credits other DA-backed groups with helping expand gay marriage in the states, boosting Obamacare, pushing through executive environmental actions and getting liberal judges appointed to the federal bench.

Those “victories and might of our infrastructure are strong evidence that we are more than capable of turning back the latest threats from the Right,” reads the briefing. “But to prevail in 2014 and beyond, progressives must invest significant resources in the Rising American Electorate (RAE) of unmarried women, young people and people of color.”

Liberals and conservatives have been jealously eyeing and trying to copy each others’ extraparty political and intellectual infrastructure since at least the early 1970s, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell encouraged the business community to build institutions to fight well-financed “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries,” including Ralph Nader. The Powell Memo was cited approvingly by the liberal strategists who started the DA back in 2005, while Karl Rove and operatives associated with the Kochs pointed to the DA and the unions as a model for their side to replicate after Obama’s win in 2008.

An analysis of the DA briefing book and tax filings by the Koch network’s Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce and other Koch-linked nonprofits show that the key pieces of the networks also parallel one another. They include:

• Voter data: Soros and other DA backers laid the seed money in 2005 for the for-profit company Catalist, which pioneered the privatization of political data. Late last year, he committed an additional $2.25 million to Catalist, which is now seen within the tech community as lagging behind other Democratic outfits, though the DA briefing boasts that “conservatives are investing heavily to catch up in this area, using Catalist as a model.” Koch-related nonprofits have poured at least$24 million into Themis, a voter database now considered the class of the conservative data universe.

• Hispanic voter outreach: The DA in the 2014 cycle expects to steer $3.9 million from its donors (out of a total $6.2 million budget) to the Latino Engagement Fund, which is working with other groups to register 250,000 new voters in eight key states, while Freedom Partners in 2012 donated $3.1 million to the LIBRE Initiative, which has aired anti-Obamacare ads targeting Latino voters.

• Millennial outreach: The DA expects to steer $1.7 million to the Youth Engagement Fund, which aims to register 200,000 voters in nine key states and to “conduct millennial polling research to craft effective messaging that demonstrably improves organizations’ ability to engage and mobilize young people.” Freedom Partners in 2012 donated $5 million to Generation Opportunity, which has spent heavily on ads and other outreach urging young voters to oppose Democratic politicians and policies.

• Women voter outreach: The DA expects its donors to give $2 million to the Women’s Equality Center, which plans to push to “increase turnout among low-propensity women voters in the 2014 elections in 10 states,” according to the briefing, while Freedom Partners in 2012 gave $8.2 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, which pushes to elevate conservative social issues.

• Ground organizing: DA partners have donated at least $1.87 million to Organizing for Action, the nonprofit created to mobilize activists to support Obama’s agenda, which appears on pace to meet a $19 million 2014 fundraising goal. Americans for Prosperity, the most aggressive political group in the Koch network, plans a 2014 budget of more than $125 million, which will be spent on everything from ground organizing to television ads bashing Democrats.

• Judicial advocacy: The DA predicts its partners will provide $1.5 million of the projected $4.7 million 2014 budget of the American Constitution Society, which last year helped get “five members of ACS network confirmed to federal bench, including three of four new D.C. circuit members,” according to the DA briefing. The Federalist Society, which advocates on conservative judicial issues, since 2010 has received $3.4 million in grants from foundations associated with donors in the Koch network.

And the similarities extend to the secrecy that enshrouds both networks.

When Freedom Partners convened the Koch donor network for its semi-annual seminar last week at the St. Regis in Dana Point, California, it bought out all the rooms at the hotel, and security ushered reporters off the premises.

“High levels of security, concealment, deception and oaths of silence — that doesn’t sound anything like a typical conference,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday in his latest speech from the Senate floor condemning the Kochs. “It sounds more like a cult. But instead of being a religious movement or a secret sect, this is a cult of money, influence and self-serving politics. This is the cult of Koch.”

Yet Reid’s colleagues and allies up to and including Vice President Joe Biden have attended DA meetings, which can be similarly secretive. Though reporters aren’t always barred from them entirely, they aren’t exactly made to feel welcome, either.

DA board members were warned before the meeting in Chicago that reporters might stake out the meeting and were given a list of about 20 journalists — including photos — to watch out for. POLITICO obtained the list, which included four of its own journalists, including this reporter, as well as Jennifer Haberkorn, Tarini Parti and Byron Tau.

Others identified included Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim, a trio of Chicago newspaper scribes and 11 reporters from the conservative Washington Free Beacon (two of whom made the trip to the Ritz-Carlton).

Told of the memo, Free Beacon editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti — who has repeatedly accused Democrats and the media of unfairly criticizing the Kochs and other conservative donors while ignoring liberal donors — positively kvelled.

“I couldn’t be prouder of my reporters for putting such fear into the hearts of secretive left-wing billionaires that they are awarded places on the Democracy Alliance’s BOLO list,” said Continetti, citing the small number of legacy media outlets on the list as evidence that the mainstream journalists were turning a blind eye to big liberal money.

Nonetheless, a memo accompanying the photos offered DA board members suggestions for fielding media inquiries about why the DA doesn’t disclose its donors or conference agendas and participants.

“As a matter of policy, we don’t make public the names of our members,” read the memo, which said the group “abide(s) by the preferences of our members. Many of our donors chose not to participate publicly, and we respect that. The DA exists to provide a comfortable environment for our partners to collectively make a real impact.”

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