Earlier this decade, Colorado progressives pioneered a political strategy for electing Democratic majorities in what had once been GOP strongholds. Since then, the strategy has been quietly deployed in at least 18 other states in time for the 2010 election cycle. And while nothing may be able to prevent Democrats from losing ground this November, they are hopeful the Colorado Model will act as a levee against the coming storm, minimizing losses in a bad year—and laying the groundwork to maximize future gains.
In a nutshell, the Colorado Model is about infrastructure. Following the passage of state and federal campaign finance reforms in 2002, Colorado progressives recognized that the Democratic party could no longer raise enough money to fund the kind of organization necessary to sustain a long-term political movement. So with backing from a handful of large donors, they built a network of specialized, coordinated nonprofits to fill the void.
The results were stunning. In 2004, Colorado Republicans held the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats, and both houses of the legislature. After the 2008 election, the opposite was true.
Even taking into account political and demographic trends, there can be no doubt the Colorado Model intensified the state’s shift from red to blue. Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, recently calculated that in the 2004 and 2006 elections Democratic legislative candidates supported by left-leaning nonprofits enjoyed a 4 percentage point bump in their final vote tallies—enough to swing close seats.
In Masket’s view, the Colorado Model’s significance is more than tactical; it portends a major change in the way politics is practiced. “This new model of campaign activity may in fact represent a new form of political party,” Masket writes. “It is a form that has arisen as an unexpected consequence of campaign finance reforms; with parties limited in their ability to directly fund campaigns, party actors have developed innovative ways of using campaign resources to aid preferred candidates.”
Led by Colorado strategists Ted Trimpa and Al Yates, progressives have made a major push to expand their “independent sector” strategy to other states. On the eve of the current election cycle, elements of the Colorado Model have been developed in California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
An example is ProgressNow, a network of state-based nonprofits that uses online organizing and media outreach tools to generate, push, and amplify negative information about Republican candidates. Originally formed in Colorado in 2003, ProgressNow boasts an $8 million budget, a grassroots network of more than 2.4 million people, and chapters in 12 states.
ProgressNow’s state chapters are already using multimedia, online organizing, and “rapid response” communications tactics to target a number of Republicans in close races, including gubernatorial candidates Tom Emmer in Minnesota and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, as well as Senate candidates Carly Fiorina in California, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Dino Rossi in Washington, and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
Progressives hope extensive opposition research conducted over the past 12 months will offset some of the strong headwinds Democrats face in 2010. “Ultimately the commodity we’re dealing with is political power,” says ProgressNow founder and CEO Michael Huttner. “It’s all about building political power at the state level. We’re trying to replicate our model in every state.”
But ProgressNow is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the auspices of a group called the Democracy Alliance, progressives are stitching together dozens of left-leaning nonprofits into a cohesive, tightly controlled national network.
The Democracy Alliance is an association of more than 100 donors who have agreed to pool their resources in furtherance of what they call “progressive philanthropy.” Its members are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country. According to Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center, the list includes financiers George Soros and Steven Gluckstern, Hollywood personalities Rob Reiner and Norman Lear, Taco Bell heir Rob McKay, SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis, Families USA founder Philippe Villers, Quark founder Tim Gill, and medical device heiress Pat Stryker.