The Bush presidency has not been kind to Ohio, where 230,000 jobs have been lost over the past three years. That’s particularly true in the eastern part of the state, where the steel industry is hemorrhaging jobs, and hope. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. Our challenge is to channel that anger and frustration into the election this fall,” says Jess Goode after a day of knocking on doors in Canton. Goode was working with the “Steel Canvas,” a voter registration and mobilization initiative organized by America Coming Together (ACT), the most prominent of a network of activist groups intent on beating George W. Bush. “If we can get these people back into politics, I think we can do a lot more than win one election,” Goode says. “We can get this country back to a place where people who have been turned off will get back into the fight. That’s what I think about every time we knock on a door.”

Through projects like the “Steel Canvas”–in which activists, many of them laid-off steelworkers, knock on doors with leaflets reading, “The Bush Administration sent my job overseas. What should I do now?”–ACT has already contacted 190,000 Ohioans and registered 36,000 new voters. And that’s just the start. With a budget that is expected to reach $95 million, ACT has fifty organizers and 450 canvassers working in Ohio, which Bush carried only narrowly in 2000, and is replicating that level of activity in the sixteen other swing states that hold the balance in this year’s contest between Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

In the public housing projects of Orlando, Creole-speaking Haitian-American canvassers are working with ACT to register first-time voters. In predominantly African-American neighborhoods of St. Louis, ACT canvassers are typing the issue concerns of likely voters into Palm Pilots in order to target communications to them. And in the steel valleys of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the canvassers are trudging from door to door with a video presentation showing laid-off steelworkers explaining the devastating impact of Bush’s decision to lift tariff protections. “The only jobs George Bush is going to create this year in some of these states are with ACT,” jokes Steve Rosenthal, the former AFL-CIO political czar who heads the organization.

ACT is one of dozens of independent progressive groups with ties to the labor, civil rights, environmental and pro-choice movements, which have been raising money, polling, strategizing and targeting key states with the purpose of dramatically increasing the turnout among angry voters. Thanks to substantial contributions from supporters like billionaire George Soros and from unions and liberal interest groups, they have filled their treasuries with unprecedented largesse–tens of millions of dollars already, hundreds of millions by November. It is way too soon to judge how effective all this new activism will be, and there are problems, some serious, that must be addressed. But if the frantic reactions of Republican operatives are any indication, these groups are altering the political calculus of 2004.

Case in point: The groups have already upset the best-laid plans of the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign to dominate the television airwaves. When Kerry took time off for a snowboarding vacation in Idaho in March, the Media Fund and the Voter Fund kept banging away at Bush–on television, and on the doorsteps–with more effective messages than the unfocused Kerry campaign has yet mustered and with a ferocity that had Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie frothing at the mouth about unfair tactics and below-the-belt hits. Gillespie is not just being paranoid about these new independent groups; ACT’s self-stated goal is “the defeat of George W. Bush and his Republican allies.”

But wait a minute. Isn’t it the job of the Democratic Party to build the infrastructure that beats Republicans? Historically, yes. There once were great urban machines, organized down to the precinct level, that churned out Democratic votes every election year, providing the margins of victory for Democratic presidential candidates like Harry Truman and John Kennedy and keeping Congress reliably Democratic. The party and its allies in labor were once so good at grassroots politicking that there remains a lingering sense that the Democrats are the masters of the grassroots. But as Rosenthal notes, the machines of old “got very, very rusty.”

In the 1990s, when Rosenthal reorganized the AFL-CIO’s political operations to get union activists knocking on doors again, he recalls, “I kept hearing back from labor people who said, ‘It’s really lonely out here.'” Even as labor drives increased the percentage of the overall electorate that came from union households–from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000–turnout among other traditionally progressive constituencies slackened. At the same time, the Republican Party and groups associated with it were implementing sophisticated voter identification and mobilization strategies. One example was the “72-Hour Program,” which former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed developed in 2002 to help the Georgia GOP displace Democratic Governor Roy Barnes and Senator Max Cleland in a stunning pair of upsets.

The 2002 election results were a wake-up call for progressives. It was no surprise that Democrats had been outspent, but what was surprising was the level of coordination between Republican media and grassroots initiatives and the strength of the GOP’s get-out-the-vote push. Susan Shaer, executive director of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), says, “2002 scared people. There was this realization that there ain’t no Democratic precinct captains out there in a lot of the states.” Much was made of the fact that Republicans picked up Congressional seats, reversing a historic mid-term pattern, but that did not begin to tell the full story of the collapse of Democratic fortunes. Following the 2002 election, Democrats fell back to the same number of House and Senate seats they held after the devastating “Republican revolution” election of 1994, which tossed the Democrats out of power in Congress for the first time in forty years. And the debacle went deeper. For the first time since 1952, Republicans held more state legislative seats than Democrats did. Those 2000 maps that showed so many states colored red for Bush were starting to look less like anomalies and more like a fate Democrats would have to resign themselves to.

The party apparatus has withered in much of the nation. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chair, promised a “rural initiative” to move resources and staff into states such as North Dakota and Montana, but the money never really flowed. You can now drive for hundreds of miles across the Western United States without touching a county where the party has a viable local organization. In the South, a decline in party fortunes that can be traced to the civil rights era has accelerated to a point where Democrats this year had a hard time recruiting statewide candidates in states like Georgia and Texas, which they dominated into the 1990s. In the Midwest, Democrats hold fewer state legislative seats than at any time since 1962. In Ohio, a state where Democrats controlled both US Senate seats, the governorship and the State Assembly as recently as 1990, the party now holds no statewide constitutional offices. For all his talk of rebuilding the party, McAuliffe has actually been presiding over its steady decline. And his one presumed strength, an ability to raise huge sums of unregulated “soft money,” was, on the morning after the 2002 vote, choked off by the new McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act.

McCain-Feingold barred national parties from collecting unlimited and largely unregulated soft-money contributions from unions and corporations and then distributing that money to state parties–as they did with more than $470 million in 2002–to pay for everything from television commercials to get-out-the-vote drives. Thus, even if McAuliffe and the DNC could get their act together, the party no longer has the financial flexibility to implement the sort of campaign needed to offset the advantages of the Bush/Cheney re-election effort and the Republican National Committee, both of which are flush with cash raised from their broader bases of well-off “hard-money” donors.

To fill the void, Rosenthal and other veteran political players, including Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily’s List; Harold Ickes, former Clinton White House aide; Jim Jordan, former Kerry campaign manager; and Cecile Richards, former aide to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, have created what friends and foes describe as a “shadow party.” Taking advantage of a loophole in Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code that allows independent political groups to continue raising and spending soft money, these groups are well on their way to collecting close to $200 million from wealthy liberals and allied labor and issue-advocacy groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the League of Conservation Voters and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

The money is being used to construct a network of new organizations that does indeed look, in many senses, like a political party. For a start, there’s the Media Fund, headed by Ickes, which serves as the coalition’s television advertising arm. America Coming Together, a collaboration between labor unions and issues groups, led by Malcolm and Rosenthal, is organizing grassroots voter contact and mobilization. America Votes is an umbrella organization financed by contributions from more than two dozen unions and issues groups and run by Richards, who serves as a “traffic cop” to avoid duplication of effort by organizations such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the NAACP National Voter Fund and the Service Employees International Union. The Thunder Road Group, named for a Bruce Springsteen song and led by Jordan, is responsible for research and coordinating rapid responses to Bush campaign attacks. The Victory Campaign 2004 serves as the combined fundraising arm for ACT and the Media Fund, pulling in huge contributions from the likes of Hyatt hotel heir Linda Pritzker, who gave $4 million. Soros has ponied up $5 million for ACT, while Progressive Corporation CEO Peter Lewis is in for $3 million.

So far the Media Fund has drawn most of the attention. After Super Tuesday the Bush campaign launched a $10 million ad campaign in swing states with the goal of defining the President (positively) and Kerry (negatively) at a time when Kerry was low on funds. But the Media Fund countered with ads criticizing Bush, as did the Voter Fund, another 527 group. Though the Media Fund and MoveOn cannot coordinate with the Kerry campaign, the combination of their ads and Kerry’s in key media markets such as St. Louis and Milwaukee actually gave anti-Bush themes more airtime in those markets than those of the President. That got Republican National Committee chair Gillespie screaming about how the ads represented “one of the dirtiest campaigns in modern presidential politics.”

Since then, almost every time the Media Fund or MoveOn has put up a new ad, lawyers for the Bush campaign and the Republican Party have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and “warned” television stations that the ads may violate FEC rules. The Republicans, who have been less aggressive about setting up 527 committees, are pressing the FEC to tighten controls on advocacy organizations; in May the FEC will consider proposed rule changes that would restrict the shadow groups’ media and grassroots campaigning. While there’s no doubt about the need for regulation–and real campaign finance reform–it does not look as though the FEC is prepared to shut down the 527s. In fact, Republicans say they’re busy tracking down “our billionaires” to set up conservative 527s, like the already well-funded Americans for a Better Country.

But the real action will be on the streets. ACT is there already, and so are a lot of its allies. Organized labor has developed strategies to counter the Bush campaign’s efforts to re-create the old “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon, which saw white male union members casting votes based on their conservative social views rather than their economic best interest. Unions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and other key states have identified regions where their members will need an extra push, and they’re providing it–with phone, mail and personal contacts designed to remind workers three times each month between now and the election of the failings of the Bush economic agenda. But if the last several election cycles prove anything, it is that union members are not the only base voters who need a push. So unions have created associate member programs to expand their reach beyond traditional boundaries. At the same time, ACORN, USAction, the NAACP National Voter Fund, the Sierra Club and other groups are all implementing unprecedented voter registration, identification and mobilization strategies. And they will have plenty of company at the doors.

Dozens of nonprofit and community groups associated with the National Voice coalition are also organizing voter registration and education drives. The National Voice groups are not 527s; rather, they operate under a different tax status that strictly bars them from advocating for or against candidates for federal office. But these groups can make sure that their members and allies are registered to vote and that they are aware of what’s at stake. That’s exactly what groups like Women’s Action for New Directions have done. WAND’s Vote 2004! project is working to get organizations that were active last year in passing “Cities for Peace” resolutions in Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, to make sure their members and allies are registered to vote. As the year goes on, WAND will distribute educational materials in those and other communities to insure that activists know where candidates stand. Explains WAND’s Shaer, “There are a lot of people out there who have been lectured to, who have been advertised to, but who haven’t been touched in a long time. They care about issues, but not so much about parties. What we’re doing invites them to get active without then saying, ‘Vote for this guy.'”

How far the invitation will be extended remains to be seen. Underneath the excited talk regarding media campaigns and mobilizations there remains a good deal of uncertainty about what the outside-the-party projects will achieve. One of the biggest challenges involves the delivery of a coherent message. “During the primaries, the issue for a lot of Democrats was ‘Who can beat Bush?’ Now, the message has to evolve,” explains former Congressman Jim Jontz, who runs the “Regime Change” campaign of Americans for Democratic Action. “Now there’s got to be clear and well-focused communication about what is being offered as an alternative to the Republican agenda.” Groups are not always on the same page; there’s a genuine ideological chasm, for example, separating the corporate-funded New Democrat Network, with its history of backing free-trade pacts, and the AFL-CIO. Additionally, election rules make it illegal for the Kerry campaign to coordinate with groups that are independent of the campaign and the Democratic Party.

While Republicans have gotten good at working around legal constraints in order to communicate with their base, Democrats still struggle. With constant asides about “judicial activism” and the definition of marriage, Bush telegraphs messages that aid the work of officially independent groups such as Americans of Faith, which plans to spend $2.5 million to register 2 million conservative Christian voters. Kerry has proven less adept at subtly sending mobilization messages. For instance, farm activists who want to develop independent voter mobilization initiatives in rural areas, which have seen a severe decline in support for Democrats, urged Kerry to address the March convention of the National Farmers Union, the county’s largest progressive farm group. But the candidate couldn’t be convinced to adjust his schedule. “That,” explained the head of an independent group working in rural areas, “was a real missed opportunity.”

There are also concerns that, like the Kerry campaign and the DNC, independent groups are too focused on those seventeen presidential battleground states. That does little to help Democrats retake Congress, since most of the open Senate seats are in states like Oklahoma and South Carolina, which will never be presidential battlegrounds.

And there remains the very serious question of whether the infrastructure is in place to turn passion into practical politicking. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign motivated thousands of volunteers to travel to Iowa, but Dean aides now acknowledge that they failed to provide the training and direction needed to utilize the campaign’s human capital effectively. Veteran activists worry about whether the many grassroots initiatives that are now being developed are adequately prepared to absorb the thousands of volunteers they plan to attract. “It’s great to have so much enthusiasm and activity,” says Heather Booth, who has worked with many of the groups. “But I still worry about whether, in the end, there will be enough planning, enough staff in place, to assure that somebody is on this corner and somebody is on that corner.”

Other strategists fret about whether too much money is going to television and too little to the grassroots, and about whether outreach to young nonvoters and other traditionally disengaged groups is striking the right chords.

And then there is the question of how to make sure all this new infrastructure will last longer than one election cycle by developing the broad-based, small-donor funding that is key to turning a “project” into a permanent force. There really are no guarantees that what is being developed now will do that, let alone that it will give George W. Bush that “one-way ticket back to Crawford, Texas,” that ACT mailings promise. But Jess Goode, who took a leave of absence from his job with a Democratic congressman to work for ACT in Ohio, is certain that something important is going on. “When I talk to people who were involved in politics here before I was born, they tell me they haven’t seen this kind of activity in forty years,” says Goode. “Forty years! That’s all the way back to when our side was good at winning elections.”