Busting Democracy Alliance Myths

As secretive liberal donor club garners press attention, misconceptions remain

November 18, 2014

The Democracy Alliance held its biannual donor conference at the ritzy Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C., last week. The secretive meeting of liberal donors garnered some press attention, but a number of misconceptions about the organization remain.

The Alliance coordinates the activities of high-dollar liberal and Democratic donors and leading left-wing activist groups, political action committees, and nonprofits. It does not accept donations; instead, it strategically vets and recommends groups for support by its donors, which include some of the wealthiest people in the world.

Those donors must contribute at least $200,000 per year to one of the scores of groups approved by DA staff. Many contribute far more than that.

In the interests of a fuller understanding of the activities of a group that heavily influences the American democratic process, the Washington Free Beacon has corrected the three most persistent myths about the DA and its activities.

Myth: Only 21 groups get Democracy Alliance support

Organizations to which Alliance donors steer funds fall into three categories: seventeen groups in its "aligned network," four "dynamic investments," and 151 groups on its "progressive infrastructure map."

In all, that makes 172 organizations backed by the Democracy Alliance. However, media reports on the extent of the DA network have downplayed the number.

"The 172 groups are simply a list of organizations that do progressive work, though they are not part of the elite list of groups the DA is working to direct funding toward," wrote the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Paul Blumenthal in September. "That list includes only 20 groups."

That is false, according to Alliance president Gara LaMarche.

According to a presentation LaMarche gave to attendees of DA’s April donor conference in Chicago, the Alliance is now "allowing contributions to any group on the Progressive Infrastructure Map … to count towards a partner’s DA commitment."

That means that the DA is actively supporting progressive infrastructure map groups, not just listing organizations that "do progressive work."

The larger DA network is not party to the same level of behind-the-scenes coordination in which its 21 core organizations partake. However, its members benefit from DA fundraising and having access to the network of wealthy liberal donors that the Alliance has assembled.

Misunderstandings about the scale of DA’s network often lead to significant underestimations of the amount of money the group funnels to liberal and Democratic organizations each year.

LaMarche told the New York Times last week that the Alliance will steer about $30 million to its supported groups this year. That figure is comparable to the $28.8 million in contributions it facilitated to aligned network and dynamic investment groups last year.

However, total contributions last year were more than double that amount. According to LaMarche’s presentation, the Democracy Alliance also steered more than $40 million to 132 groups on the progressive infrastructure map.

Myth: DA-supported groups are minimally involved in electoral politics

"The Democracy Alliance list also includes only a small number of groups that are active in running advertising attacking candidates, which is a central function of the Koch political network," Grim and Blumenthal wrote in Septempber.

That is only the case if one excludes groups on the progressive infrastructure map. In fact, groups in the Democracy Alliance network accounted for more than a third of all election-related spending by Super PACs during the 2014 midterms as of mid-October (total post-election spending numbers will not be available until December).

Most of those groups are on the progressive infrastructure map, but one, the America Votes Action Fund, is the Super PAC arm of one of the Alliance’s most involved organizations, and a pillar of its efforts to turn out its target voting coalition.

The left’s most active Super PACs are members of the DA network. They include Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, NextGen Climate Action, and Americans for Responsible Solutions.

The network also includes 501(c)(4) "dark money" groups and traditional political action committees that were highly active during the 2014 cycle, such as Emily’s List, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and the VoteVets Action Fund.

The Alliance is also pouring tens of millions of dollars into state-level political contests in an effort to reverse sizable Republican gains in gubernatorial races and state legislatures.

Myth: DA fights political corruption and opacity

Despite the DA network’s extensive involvement in fundraising and political spending on the federal and, increasingly, state levels, it insists that it wants to cleanse the American political system of money.

A panel at last week’s donor conference discussed strategies for "getting big money out of politics."

However, the Alliance does not want reduced political spending for its own sake, or as a means of reducing corruption, which is the primary constitutional justification for campaign finance regulations.

Rather, it sees reduced spending by conservative groups as integral to some of its major policy goals. "Dealing with the distorting effect of money on our politics is a prerequisite to every other advance we seek," LaMarche said in his April presentation.

The group’s panel event promoted a similar attitude on campaign finance reform. "There’s little hope for the rest of the progressive agenda" without it, the event’s description said.

DA-backed groups supported a constitutional amendment proposed this year that also explicitly aimed to advance Democratic policies by kneecapping the party’s political opposition.

Some media reports have inaccurately described that measure as an attempt to roll back the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC. Doing so would significantly limit the types of independent expenditures that Democrat-allied groups fully exploited during the midterm elections.

However, the language of the measure would only have given federal and state governments the ability to regulate campaign finance as they see fit, in effect removing all constitutional protections for any form of political speech that requires any disbursement of money.

Congress or state legislatures could use that authority to roll back Citizens United, or they could use it to enact totally different—potentially more far-reaching—changes to campaign finance reform laws.

For all of the Alliance’s rhetoric on campaign finance and political transparency, it took steps to prevent scrutiny of last week’s conference, hiring its own security firm to prevent prying eyes.

The club of some of the nation’s wealthiest political donors "is extremely confidential and private," the hotel advised its staff.