Dean Nielsen, head of Progressive Majority’s statewide office in Seattle, is surrounded by color-coded maps, campaign fliers and mountains of demographic research. Nielsen, a veteran of state and federal campaigns, could be running a hot Congressional race or a statewide presidential campaign. The demographer who did John Kerry’s voter-targeting in Iowa in 2004 produced the maps. But the candidate here is running for county commissioner. And the names in dry-erase marker on the wall are candidates for school board and city council.
Welcome to the left-wing conspiracy. It’s not vast. But it could be the start of something big. Progressive Majority recruits local and statewide candidates in a handful of states, funneling money from its national membership to support down-ballot races. The mission is deliberately narrow: Get progressives elected at the local level, and give them the tools to move up. The group has offices in five states now, with plans to expand to eleven by 2008 and twenty soon after.
The group has grown rapidly in two years. Washington was the first, in 2004, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Last year offices opened in Colorado and Arizona. Since 2004 112 candidates have run with a 71 percent success rate. And don’t confuse smallness with lack of power or potential: The group’s savvy has made it a bellwether for progressive politics. “Growing to scale, we could get to twenty-five states,” says executive director Gloria Totten. “But whether you can raise the money is the million-dollar question.” Make that the $24 million question. That’s how much Totten figures is needed to reach a twenty-five-state capacity. Progressive Majority’s current budget is $6.8 million. “Our goals are to take back the state legislatures, and then take those states off the table in national elections,” says Totten.
The ultimate goal: a progressive takeover of state and national politics by 2010. “We could put Democrats in control of redistricting, and have thousands of progressive candidates running every year,” says Totten. “And we’re just not going to support people who are not good on our issues.”
Progressive Majority is uncompromising in its politics. Candidates must get 100 percent on a forty-item questionnaire that tests their commitment to economic justice and civil rights, including gay rights, public education, universal healthcare, environmental protection and abortion. Through its Racial Justice Campaign Fund, the group aims to recruit candidates of color in numbers proportionate to each state’s minority population. There are fifty-three so far. Instead of trying to graft a “diversity” mission onto a largely white national organization, it hires staff who know local communities and have street credibility.
Progressive Majority started in 2001 working with Congressional candidates. “Many of them were trying to run on a Democratic ticket that was telling them they shouldn’t take progressive positions on the issues we cared about,” says Totten. “It took us one cycle to say, ‘Forget this. We’re going to go to the bottom and bring up movement progressives.’ Maybe they need to be dressed up a bit, helped with their political skills. But that’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to convince them to take our side on the issues.”
The historical equivalent of this effort is GOPAC, which has raised tens of millions to recruit and support movement conservatives running for down-ballot office. GOPAC’s website tells the group’s history–a mirror image of the current political moment. In 1978 Delaware Governor Pete du Pont “surveyed what was, from a Republican perspective, a bleak electoral landscape. A Democrat held the White House. Both houses of Congress were rock-solid Democrat, as they had been for more than a generation. Republican governors led just twelve states. Barely a quarter of state legislative bodies were in GOP control…. Du Pont concluded that the Republican Party had to build a ‘farm team’ if it was ever to become a governing majority party.”