Upstarts lead fight against Trump
Insurgent movement also poses challenge to Democratic Party
New groups are upending the liberal establishment — and raising big money.
WASHINGTON — It started as a scrappy grass-roots protest movement against President Donald Trump, but now the resistance is attracting six- and seven-figure checks from major liberal donors, posing an insurgent challenge to some of the left’s most venerable institutions — and the Democratic Party itself.
The jockeying between groups, donors and operatives for cash and turf is occurring mostly behind the scenes. But it has grown acrimonious at times, with upstarts complaining they are being boxed out by a liberal establishment that they say enables the sort of Democratic timidity that paved the way for the Trump presidency.
The tug of war — more than the lingering squabbles between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — foreshadows a oncei-n-a-generation reorganization of the American left that could dictate the tactics and ideology of the Democratic Party for years to come. If the newcomers prevail, they could pull the party further to the left, leading it to embrace policy positions like those advocated by Sanders, including single-payer health care and free tuition at public colleges.
The upending of the left comes
amid a broader realignment in American politics, with the Republican Party establishment also contending with a rising rebellion, driven by pro-Trump populists. Just as the new forces on the right are threatening primary challenges to establishment Republicans, some groups on the left have begun talking about targeting Democratic incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.
Entrenched Democratic groups are facing growing questions about the return on the hundreds of millions of dollars they have spent over the years. Groups affiliated with Clinton “spent so much money based on a bad strategy in this last cycle that they should step aside and let others lead in this moment,” said Quentin James, a founder of the Collective PAC that supports African-American candidates.
James’ committee is among more than three dozen outfits that have started or reconfigured themselves since the election to try to harness the surge in antiTrump activism. In addition to political committees, grass-roots mobilization nonprofits and legal watchdog groups, there are for-profit companies providing technological help — essentially forming a new liberal ecosystem outside of the Democratic Party.
Changing liberal landscape
While the new groups gained early traction mostly on the strength of grass-roots volunteers and small donations — and with relatively meager overall budgets — they are beginning to attract attention from the left’s most generous benefactors.
“We’re in a disruptive period, and when we get through it, the progressive infrastructure landscape may look different,” said Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, a club of wealthy liberals who donate at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. “There may be groups that have been around that don’t rise to the challenge, and there may be some new groups that do rise to the challenge, while others fade away.”
The Democracy Alliance has helped shape the institutional left, steering more than $600 million since its inception in 2005 to a portfolio of carefully selected groups, including pillars of the Clinton-aligned establishment like the think tank Center for American Progress and the media watchdog Media Matters.
But this year, the Democracy Alliance hired Archana Sahgal, a former Obama White House official, to help the anti-Trump groups, and it suspended its intensive approval process to recommend donations to groups created since last fall’s election.
The Democracy Alliance distributed a “resistance map” to its donors in July including new groups focused on converting the anti-Trump energy into electoral wins, such as Flippable, Swing Left and Sister District, as well as legal watchdog groups and others focused on mobilizing protesters.
Perhaps no group epitomizes the differences between the legacy left and the grass-roots resistance like Indivisible. Started as a Google document detailing techniques for opposing the Republican agenda under Trump, the group now has a mostly Washington-based staff of about 40 people, with more than 6,000 volunteer chapters across the country. The national Indivisible hub, which consists of a pair of nonprofit groups, has raised nearly $6 million since its start, primarily through small-dollar donations made through its website.
Committed to independence
Yet Indivisible also has received funding from tech entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, as well as foundations or coalitions tied to Democracy Alliance donors.
And an advocacy group funded by billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, a founding member of the Democracy Alliance and one of the most influential donors on the left, is considering a donation in the low six figures to Indivisible. Soros has already donated to a host of nonprofit groups playing key roles in the anti-Trump movement.
Indivisible would “gladly” accept a check from Soros or his foundation, said an official with the group, Sarah Dohl. But, she added, the group is committed to ensuring that money from major donors does not become a majority of the group’s revenue, “because we want to maintain our independence both from the funders and from the party.”
Established liberal groups like the Center for American Progress haven’t always been as forceful, Dohl said, though she added it “has gotten better at calling on Democrats to stand up and speak more boldly than they have in the past.”
CAP has engendered resentment from others on the left for casting itself as a leader of the anti-Trump movement and raising money off the resistance nomenclature. CAP’s embrace has some anti-Trump activists complaining privately that it is anathema to the anti-establishment fervor animating the resistance, and it is siphoning resources from the new groups.