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Democrats are losing to Republicans at the state level, and badly. Here's why.

Side-by-side photographs of the billionaire Koch brothers
While the Democrats grow confident about the White House, the Koch brothers have turned their focus to state-level networks.

Faced with a loose-cannon 2016 GOP presidential nominee who disagrees with them on key issues, Charles and David Koch — the two billionaire "Koch brothers" — are directing the vast resources of their political network toward down-ballot races. This should alarm liberals greatly.

The Koch resources are likely to be more effective in state and congressional contests than they would be in the presidential race. What’s more, the Koch network and other ultra-free market networks at the state level already enjoy formidable clout — certainly far more power than the equivalent left-progressive organizations.

Whatever happens in the 2016 presidential contest, the persistent imbalance between right and left in state-level organizational prowess will continue to shape politics and policy outcomes in ways that may surprise and disappoint majorities of citizens.

The presidential contest takes up most of the air in the media, but it is at the local and state level that political movements are built, as conservatives in recent years have recognized better than liberals.

A powerful "troika" of right-wing networks

Koch network-backed groups, above all the huge advocacy federation called Americans for Prosperity, have scored major victories over the past decade — working closely with already established cross-state political networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN).

These conservative cross-state networks have blocked the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, challenged efforts by the Obama administration to deal with climate change, derailed proposals to increase the minimum wage and enact paid sick leave, and weakened union and voting rights. Unless liberals and progressives find ways to counter conservatives across most US states, both Obama’s legacies and future liberal gains are likely to remain limited.

How have right-wing political networks achieved such striking victories? Our ongoing research on the shifting US political terrain shows that the right’s subnational success relies on complementary and reinforcing efforts by three key cross-state networks. These networks end up setting public agendas and shaping legislative choices:

  • The American Legislative Exchange Council, often called ALEC— formed in 1973 as a means of uniting businesses, conservative activists, and state lawmakers is best known for drafting cookie-cutter, corporate-friendly "model bills" and disseminating them across state legislatures. ALEC also provides valuable services, including research assistance, expert witnesses, and talking points, to understaffed part-time legislators who would otherwise lack such resources. Although ALEC has suffered some setbacks in recent years in the wake of a progressive backlash (partly stemming from its support of "stand your ground" self-defense laws), it still claims as members nearly one-quarter of state lawmakers and several hundred private sector businesses and activists. According to leaked 2013 records, in 14 states at least a third of lawmakers were enrolled as ALEC members.
  • Conservative clout is further bolstered by a network of free market think tanks that was launched in 1986 as the Madison Group and is now called the State Policy Network. With at least one affiliate in each state, the State Policy Network coordinates research and advocacy related to many of the same policy priorities pursued by ALEC. State Policy Network affiliates produce research reports and media commentary that supports ALEC model legislation, and in many cases SPN affiliates also participate as dues-paying members in ALEC task forces and meetings.
  • The most recent addition to the potent troika of conservative cross-state networks is the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. Created after the demise of an earlier Koch-backed group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity has expanded since 2004 into a nation-spanning federation comparable in size and resources to the Republican Party itself. Its current budget of about $150 million supports activities by some 500 paid staffers and about 2.5 million grassroots activists. Combining central direction from its Virginia headquarters with paid directors in close to three dozen states, Americans for Prosperity is well-positioned to orchestrate both legislative and electoral battles. Americans for Prosperity uses grassroots protests, lobbying, advertising buys, and local canvassing to help to elect far-right GOP politicians — and then urges and prods those politicians to support the ultra-free market agendas promoted by ALEC and the State Policy Network.
A graph showing that while the right wing has established three strong networks, left-wing equivalents have had a harder time gaining traction. Several are defunct.
While the right has established three strong networks, left-wing equivalents have had a harder time gaining traction. Several left-leaning networks are defunct.
Scholars Strategy Network

Tellingly, each of these networks extends across dozens of US states and plays a slightly different role in advancing shared goals — weakening unions, retrenching regulations and labor market protections, lowering taxes, and reducing government spending. ALEC pushes proposals within state legislature; the State Policy Network builds the intellectual and policy case for those bills; and Americans for Prosperity then generates outside political pressure, through ads and grassroots organizing, to ensure that lawmakers ultimately support the proposals.

Liberal networks suffer from duplication, lack of coordination

It’s a potent nationwide political operation, far more effective than comparable liberal or progressive-left efforts. Take the world of liberal state think tanks. On the right, the State Policy Network presents a unified message. On the left, two competing networks of think tanks have spread across the states, each coordinated by a different Washington, DC-based policy institute.

The State Priorities Partnership, which was built by the center-left Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, coordinates a network of 42 state policy organizations focused on issues affecting low-income Americans. Simultaneously, the Economic Analysis and Research Network, operated through the Economic Policy Institute, is a collaboration of some 61 state policy institutes that do research and advocacy on labor policy and issues affecting working-class Americans.

Although the two networks are separate at the top, many state policy organizations are affiliated with both, an arrangement that renders the two assemblages slightly less than the sum of their parts.

An even more frustrating version of the same duplication marks three decades' worth of progressive efforts to replicate and counter ALEC — the right-wing group that creates model bills. One after another, left-wing groups have launched many sputtering progressive efforts since the 1980s.

ALEC moved through various experimental phases before it eventually realized it could build enduring clout by enrolling both businesses and conservative-minded state legislators as dues-paying members who collaborate in issue-focused task forces. Dues give members a sense that they have a real stake in the organization — they serve as a signal of the commitment of the lawmakers.

But the various left-liberal competitors have never gotten beyond competing for (insufficient) grants from unions, center-left foundations, and wealthy donors. Few of those liberal funders ever stuck with cross-state projects for long, given the preference of liberals in the United States for national initiatives launched from Washington, DC.

A new left-wing entrant in the game — with some flaws

Progressives now hope that this picture can change with the emergence of a new group — the State Innovation Exchange (or SiX) — the product of a 2014 merger of several older progressive networks focused on state lawmakers. Our review of the group’s activities suggests that the left’s fragmentation has meant that the State Innovation Exchange has had to assume some of the functions performed for the political right by both ALEC and Americans for Prosperity.

Like ALEC, the State Innovation Exchange has developed a library of progressive model legislation, and it encourages left-leaning lawmakers to adopt those bills through annual meetings, communication training, and "campaigns in a box" (which offer strategies and tools to push a policy priority like earned sick leave).

At the same time, the State Innovation Exchange is also experimenting with an Americans for Prosperity-like approach of building progressive activist power in the states by partnering with assorted state and national advocacy groups. It’s taking advantage of recent social movement protests around the minimum wage and racial justice issues, for instance.

Overall, SiX seems to be leaning more toward ALEC-like functions of building support for policy change within state legislatures. Unlike ALEC, the State Innovation Exchange does yet not enroll state legislators as members, though this may change as SiX establishes a name for itself across the states. Thus far, SiX has reached directly into state legislatures primarily by holding sessions with Democratic and progressive caucuses in the small share of US states where Democrats and liberals currently hold sway.

A failure to reach beyond the blue-state core

That is a major weakness of the left-liberal efforts in this area. Although ALEC and the other right-wing networks have a presence across almost all of the US states, SiX has much more limited scope — at least so far. SiX’s future success will likely depend on its ability to build an organizational brand that can appeal not only to dyed-in-the-wool progressives but also more moderate members in purple and red states. This was an important strategy for ALEC, which for many years carefully maintained a bipartisan sheen to attract more centrist Democrats.

If the evolution of the complementary troika of conservative networks is any guide, the State Innovation Exchange might be better off aiming to fill only one of two niches — either organizing a network of legislators or building outside progressive political pressure. That’s partly because these two functions require somewhat different resources and strategies, partly because resources continue to be limited on the left. An estimate of SiX’s 2015 budget puts it at around $3.5 million — approximately half the revenue commanded by ALEC and only about 2 percent of the recent budgets of Americans for Prosperity.

Should SiX choose to focus on building a network of state lawmakers, it would need to consider tactics resembling those that ultimately worked on the right, including using less politically charged labels, enrolling state legislators as dues-paying members, and (especially) designating leading legislators within each state as point-persons for recruiting and orchestrating others from both parties.

ALEC learned over time to leverage networks within each state to great success. One of its early heads always made an effort to tap well-respected senior leaders in each chamber as state ALEC "chairs" — ideally one from each party — who would then participate in friendly competitions with one another to see which chairs could recruit more members to the group.

So far, the left has no answer for the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity

If SiX does decide to push forward in an ALEC-type role, then another niche remains to be filled on the progressive left. To operate more effectively across the states, the US left also still needs some kind of Americans for Prosperity-like federated organization able to deploy funds and grassroots and lobbying clout in a continuous and orchestrated fashion between and during elections. A few decades ago, an approximation to this kind of left federation existed in the form of powerful and growing public-sector labor unions, but now they are on the defensive and have major clout in fewer states, principally the blue states on the coasts.

Building a more nation-spanning progressive federation would not be easy. Architects would need to deal with the perennial left-wing issue of too many advocacy groups and donors pushing dozens of issues and causes. On the right, Americans for Prosperity allies with many other conservative groups, but the network itself keeps a close focus on a core set of mostly economic issues. Any effective left counterpart would have to avoid simply trying to add up every conceivable liberal cause every time it acts — a common left-wing pitfall.

In addition, a new progressive federation would need to find a funding model that ensures a continuous core budget not subject to specialized, short-term demands from foundations or donors. And it would need to build constructive relationships with existing counterpart networks like the labor unions. But if all of these challenges could be managed and a progressive advocacy federation could be constructed across most US states — reaching beyond the coasts into the Midwest, upper South, and remainder of the heartlands — then the progressive presence in state and congressional politics could gain ground for years to come.

With its own version of a powerful troika of cross-state networks combining policy research, legislative orchestration, and public advocacy across dozens of states, the American left would become much more able to elect and support progressive politicians at all levels of government. As the US right well understands, that sort of combined clout across the states is what it takes to move the needle in American politics and public policy. As liberals continue to relearn through hard experience, capturing the presidency and operating in Washington, DC — is simply not enough.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, and director of the Scholars Strategy Network.