Up­starts lead fight against Trump

In­sur­gent move­ment also poses chal­lenge to Demo­cratic Party

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ken­neth P. Vogel

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.

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