The Right Leans In
Like many SPN affiliates, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has seen its budget steadily rise. In 2011, the group brought in $5.5 million in contributions, $2.4 million more than it raised in 2008. How the other state think tanks in SPN’s orbit are funded largely remains a mystery, since they, like many overtly political nonprofits, do not disclose their donors. A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity shows that Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund that caters to wealthy individuals, has provided much of the funding for the recent expansion in state think tanks backed by the Franklin Center and SPN.
Under Sharp’s leadership, State Policy Network has grown, opening new think tanks (now numbering fifty-nine) and forging close relations with ALEC, which brings together conservative state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists to draft “model legislation.” In 2009, ALEC gave Sharp an award to thank her for “getting SPN members more involved” with the organization. “This special acknowledgement belongs to those who have put in dedicated time and energy through ALEC,” said Sharp, who accepted the award onstage with lobbyists from Verizon and Altria.
While progressive donors have also sought to fund targeted think tank and state media outlets in certain states—namely Colorado and, reportedly, Texas—there is no comparison in terms of size and scope, or in the underhanded tactics embraced by their ideological opponents.
Brian Rothenberg, head of ProgressOhio, notes that while family foundations exist on the right and the left, corporate money has flowed almost exclusively to conservative think tanks. “Especially after Citizens United,” he says, “the right is inherently better funded than the left.” In 2011, during the effort to repeal Governor John Kasich’s collective bargaining law, unions still provided less than 20 percent of ProgressOhio’s budget.
As far as local labor activists like Brett Banditelli (who also produces the Rick Smith radio show in Harrisburg) are concerned, their side is already overwhelmed. The Franklin Center’s Pennsylvania Independent “doesn’t have much readership, but does an incredible job of setting the tone on attacks on unions before the attacks come,” says Banditelli, who notes the Legislature might first go after union pensions before changing any membership or collective bargaining rules. Banditelli says labor has been slow to adapt to the changing media environment, and teachers and workers now stand defenseless.
Also, Republicans who were newly elected in 2012 seem intent on consolidating power. Missouri’s GOP state legislators have contemplated using their supermajority to enact right-to-work legislation. The Advance Arkansas Institute, the SPN affiliate in Little Rock, produced content pushing for the strict voter ID laws recently passed by the legislature—which became Republican this year for the first time since Reconstruction.
Similarly, the Americans for Prosperity chapter in Kansas has pushed an effort to undercut paycheck dues to public sector unions this year, while the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a North Carolina think tank, has rolled out attacks against Democratic efforts to reform the state’s infamously gerrymandered congressional lines.
Tim Phillips, the national head of Americans for Prosperity and a close adviser to David Koch, has been clear about his intention to make the most out of the Republicans’ state-level gains. Speaking at a recent press conference in Indianapolis, he declared: “We see a debate going on at the state level that is really going to define the nation.”
Meanwhile, at another Heritage Foundation gathering, Sharp and her colleagues said that their new strategy had been inspired in part by a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker called “How David Beats Goliath.” The piece, which details the ways that underdogs can win playing by their own rules, offers anecdotes on how insurgents have defeated well-equipped armies by harassing and weakening their opponents. It also describes how a computer scientist won a naval warfare simulation by spending his fictional trillion-dollar budget almost entirely on PT boats.
Referring to the Gladwell article, Sharp said PT boats are “an apt metaphor” for her network of groups because “they’re fast and maneuverable. A team of PT boats working strategically can defeat much larger and less maneuverable vessels—such as huge chunks of unions.”
In his blog, appearing regularly at TheNation.com, Lee Fang investigates the intersection of politics, lobbying and public policy. His latest dispatch: “Microsoft Helps Sponsor CPAC's Anti-Gay Conference.”