Ashes of ACT

In the summer of 2005, the director of the largest voter-mobilization organization that progressives have ever seen, sent e-mails out to most of its 30 staffers warning them that their paychecks would be cut off by the end of August. America Coming Together (ACT), the flagship progressive “527” organization, headed by former ALF-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, was running out of cash. Its major backers, George Soros and Peter Lewis, who together put $38.5 million into ACT (and a partner organization, the Media Fund), declined to sustain their commitment following the 2004 election. State offices closed down, and the get-out-the-vote behemoth that at its peak boasted 6,000 employees and 78 field offices now had but a tiny number of staffers.

It wasn't supposed to end this way. Born a year before the presidential election over a dinner conversation among longtime Democratic operative Harold Ickes, EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm, and Rosenthal, ACT sought to identify progressive voters in key states and lead them to polls. By Election Day, ACT had raised some $140 million, registering hundreds of thousands of voters -- mostly in swing states -- and turning them out to vote in record numbers. In Ohio alone, ACT registered 85,000 new voters.

ACT was a member of a larger coalition called America Votes -- an assortment of 32 progressive and labor organizations like the ALF-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters -- that registered an additional 215,000 voters in Ohio. On November 2, ACT's field operation delivered a good chunk of these voters to the polls.

It turned out, of course, that the right delivered a few million more. But even in defeat, ACT held out the promise of installing on the political landscape a permanent progressive get-out-the-vote infrastructure. A little more than a year later, though, ACT is all but history.

Looking forward to 2006, this narrative would seem to suggest a return to the usual state of liberal disarray. After all, if ACT couldn't succeed with all that money -- and with the heat that a presidential race stirs -- then how could this year be any better?

Dejection, however, is not the prevalent mood among liberal-organizing groups. A perception of Republican vulnerability has inspired many organizations to expand their operations this November. The ALF-CIO is enlarging its voter-mobilization campaign from 16 states in 2004 to 20 in 2006. And officials at EMILY's List, the premier fund-raising organ for Democratic pro-choice women, tell the Prospect that compared to this point in 2004, they have two times as many candidates who have raised four times as much money as their counterparts in 2004. Can the 527s repeat their 2004 efforts -- but to a more positive effect?

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First, they have to continue to exist. Ever since the 527s (so-named for the section of tax code to which they owe their existence) distinguished themselves as a Democratic tour de force in 2004, the Republican Congress has attempted to legislate them into the ether. The first assault was launched in April 2005 when Republican members of the Senate Rules Committee passed a series of resolutions that would at once kill 527s while increasing the monetary amounts individuals and corporations can give to political-action committees and individual candidates.

That effort failed. But late last year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that “527 reform” was a top legislative priority in 2006. Since then, the Republican House leadership has expressed an interest in inserting 527 reform into a larger package of “must pass” lobbying-reform measures. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid consider this a non-starter. John McCain, the Senate's lead Republican on lobbying reform, has so far hesitated to include such a poison pill in his proposal.

McCain's withdrawal from lumping 527s with lobbying reform was only a tactical retreat. He and other lawmakers remain committed to doing away with 527s in their present form, with the bipartisan quartet of McCain and Russ Feingold in the Senate and Chris Shays and Marty Meehan in the House offering legislation that would limit the soft money flowing to 527 groups and further regulate their advertising.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, four out of the top five 527s most active in the 2006 election cycle thus far are labor or progressive groups focused on voter turnout in November. And though some Democratic legislators like Barack Obama have offered to pursue 527 reform along a “parallel track” to lobbying reform, it is doubtful that a sufficient number of his colleagues are willing to bite the hand that feeds them. And to the extent that 527s also offer bipartisan support (the third most active 527 at the time of publication was the right-wing Progress for America), movement on the quartet's reform plan will likely be limited.

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Assuming the 527s survive Capitol Hill, a successful get-out-the-vote strategy for the 2006 mid-terms will depend on identifying and mobilizing the right kinds of voters. To that end, ACT's swan song was a novel experiment in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race to test strategies for better reaching so-called drop-off or infrequent voters -- those who cast ballots in presidential years, but stay home otherwise (results of the experiment were not yet available).

When the numbers are crunched, they will be shared with America Votes' 32 member groups -- who, since 2004, are growing accustomed to working together. “The partner organizations of America Votes felt that coming together at a common table, talking about our plans, and jointly figuring out how to work together was immensely successful,” says Kathy Duvall, who left America Votes to become the national political director of the Sierra Club, one of America Votes' largest members.

This increased contact has weaned progressive organizations away from their traditional hostility to sharing voter lists and other proprietary information with one another. Even more so than in 2004, America Votes is poised to match the right's messengers with the voters who want to hear from them. “We are trying to avoid what historically has happened on the progressive side,” says Cecile Richards, who led America Votes until February when she became the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Which is, the same ten voters get bombarded by mail and phone calls from every progressive organization in America and meanwhile we leave tons of people that have no contact.”

The Cook Political Report lists 21 Republican House seats as most vulnerable, with some 23 others in play. There are also hotly contested statewide races in Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania -- places where America Votes has state directors, some who are alumni from the 2004 election. “In 2004 dropping someone like me into the state and getting them to coordinate all these folks' campaign activities was reliant on a fair degree of trust and familiarity that took a while to build,” says Scott Nunnery, America Votes' Ohio director. “This time around, we don't have to get to know each other. We are actually trying to get on the front end and are building programs that make sense in the context of this year.”

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So the laborers in the post-ACT field have a more positive story to tell -- so far -- than one might have thought. Of course, they sounded like this in the early part of 2004, too. The moral of 2004 is that there are certain problems no amount of organization can solve -- the quality of candidate(s) the ground operation is supporting, and the ageless problem of the lack of a coherent Democratic message.

Finally, there's always the other side: In October 2004, there was boundless enthusiasm on the liberal side about the extent of the mobilization; then came November 2, and people realized that the right had out-mobilized them by a few million voters. It will be interesting to see, this fall, whether previous victory or previous defeat turns out to be the bigger motivator.

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