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How to Build a Farm Team | The Nation

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How to Build a Farm Team

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When Newt Gingrich took over GOPAC in the 1980s, he used the group to catapult conservatives to power across the nation. Gingrich's candidate-training audiotapes became legendary. GOPAC distributed the tapes to 10,000 new conservative candidates each month. All over the country, grassroots candidates began to adopt "Newtspeak" and learned to run disciplined campaigns. In 1994 Gingrich's class of GOPAC conservatives took over the House, ending forty years of Democratic control, and won a record number of governorships and statehouses. The politics of the entire country changed. At the same time that Gingrich was plotting his revolution, the Christian Coalition, under Ralph Reed's leadership, was working on a right-wing takeover of the nation's school boards. A 1995 Institute for First Amendment Studies piece on Reed's work noted that "more than 12,000 conservative Christians have been elected to school board seats since 1989. Over the next few years, many of these people will be working their way up within the political system."

About the Author

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive magazine.

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Like these conservative models, Progressive Majority's hallmark is its professionalism. Staff comb through candidates' yearbooks and wedding albums to get them started fundraising, bring in professional coaches for message and media training, and babysit through fundraising calls and door-to-door campaigning. Every candidate must have a detailed plan and run a disciplined campaign. Progressive Majority works with candidates individually to develop a campaign plan and fundraising goals. That's because Progressive Majority sees its candidates--even those who lose their initial races--as future aspirants for higher office.

In 2003 Republicans took control of a significant number of state governments for the first time since 1952. They are now ahead in governorships twenty-eight to twenty-two and in Statehouses forty-nine to forty-seven. Many groups want to reverse that trend. Some bundle contributions for federal and statewide candidates (EMILY's List), offer candidate training (Wellstone Action) or organize volunteers to get out the vote (Democracy for America). "We're the only group doing comprehensive recruitment at the sheriff and school board level," says Totten.

Progressive Majority also collaborates with other groups. Jim Dean, brother of Howard Dean and chair of Democracy for America, is enthusiastic about the joint effort to "rebuild the infrastructure of the party." "It's a very entrepreneurial environment," he says. That's an optimistic way of saying that the Democratic Party has left a void by not building its own infrastructure. Progressive Majority sees that void as an opportunity to transform the party into a more progressive force. "When the party recruits candidates, money is too often the primary equation," says Dean. Or, as Blair Butterworth, a veteran political consultant in Washington State, puts it, "The parties have handed over the campaigns to people like me--political consultants. We're interested in winning." Butterworth explains that "taking on a candidate who may not win this time, but maybe next time, won't pay anyone's mortgage."

Financial viability--money, connections, and safely centrist politics--are often the test of candidates' viability. Ironically, that has meant less inspiring--and less winning--Democrats, and a party apparatus filled with people getting their tickets punched and moving on. "The average tenure of a state party chair is one year," Nielsen says. "I don't know anyone at the DNC anymore, because they've all turned over." Unlike the party or consultants, Progressive Majority aims to bring activists into politics who have been excluded or who have never thought about running before. Part of the challenge is to get a national donor list to set aside the short-term urgency of the next election and give money to local candidates they've never heard of. Most important, the group connects candidates to a network of pro-choice, labor and environmental interest groups.

The head of SEIU 775 in Washington State, David Rolf, says Progressive Majority fills "a very important niche" recruiting candidates and bringing his attention to local races he otherwise wouldn't follow. Rolf helped draft the labor questions on the Washington candidate questionnaire, and SEIU has supported Progressive Majority candidates. Rolf is more interested in the group's role as an incubator of progressive politics than he is in saving the Democratic Party. The Dems have shot themselves in the foot, he says, because they don't appeal to working people on bread-and-butter issues anymore. That's why, he says, SEIU is "not at a particularly monogamous moment" in politics--it works with Republicans in the state legislature who are good on its issues. "If wages continue to stagnate, employer-based healthcare continues to deteriorate, people have no hope of a dignified retirement, they will continue to vote on other issues and not economics, and the Democrats will go extinct," Rolf says. "The issue is finding what replaces them, instead of nothing. If the conservatives have their way, it will be nothing."

If Progressive Majority has its way, it will mean a reborn, progressive Democratic Party.

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