“The reason it is so important to control government is because government is the source of enormous power. One president of this country, when he or she takes office, appoints…5,000 people to run a bureaucracy, nonmilitary nonpostal service of 2 million people, who hire 10 million outside outsource contractors – a workforce of 12 million people – that spends $3 trillion a year. That number is larger than the gross domestic product of all but four countries on the face of the earth.
“So the reason we’re doing what we’re doing…and the way to get progressive change, is to control government. That’s what this is about.” – Rob Stein, 2008
In 2004 a very small group of very focused Democrats came together in the state of Colorado, determined to change the course of election outcomes in their state. Started by one very bright political organizer and financed by one very ideologically driven wealthy resident, they built the most effective strategic and tactical system the American political world has seen in modern times. In so doing, they rewrote the playbook for winning elections, turning traditionally red state Colorado into a heavy hitting blue state. They created an extremely effective system that has now been franchised across the country, a system I like to call McPolitics. A book was written documenting their efforts and successes, authored by a journalist who covered the campaigns during that time period and by a former office holder who became a casualty of their success. The book is titled, “How the Democrats Won Colorado, and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care”.
In reality, however, this isn’t a partisan problem. This is a problem of regular people vs. power structures. The system the Democrats invented is now being adopted by many on the Republican side. Escalation is inevitable in an arms race, but the effect has been to so thoroughly manipulate the campaign process and stack the deck in favor of heavily funded shadow organizations, it is nearly impossible for “regular people” to make honest, informed decisions for themselves at the ballot box. Just like some independent business owners have a hard time competing against national chains when they come into town, McPolitics is incredibly hard to overcome once it is established in your area. Either you adapt to the new landscape, or you die.
Here, then, is the genesis of McPolitics:
In Colorado, the Democrats were really tired of being kicked around. Colorado had been a dominantly Republican state for a long time. Determined to change the landscape in Colorado to further their goals, dedicated liberal leaders from private and non-profit sectors came together around one goal: to win, period. They set aside any issue or policy disagreements, knowing they could work those out later once they were in the majority. They made the conscious decision to never criticize or work against each other in public. Their discipline was incredibly strong. It didn’t happen – not once. No public squabbles, no potshots, no public disagreements of any kind. The group’s leaders, made up of extremely wealthy business people, the heads of some of the biggest non-profits, and the best political operatives, formed a Roundtable that made all key decisions going forward. All participating organizations coordinated tightly around each one’s strengths and took their directions from the Roundtable. Organizations were focused (and new ones set up) on what they did best; they didn’t go rogue or step on each others’ toes. The organizations were plugged into the plan where they would be most effective.
The Roundtable based all decisions on how to take extreme advantage of campaign finance laws and protecting donors – file as little paperwork as humanly possible and operate in the shadows as much as possible.
Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “The group immediately recognized that campaign finance reform had completely changed the rules of the game. By limiting the amount of money candidates and political parties could raise and spend, the new law had seriously weakened candidates – and all but killed political parties… The biggest thing is it took parties out of the mix as a money entity [compared to the capacity of C4s and 527s].”
The Roundtable developed target lists for seats based on local issues, opposition vulnerability and voting index. All that mattered was whether the seat was winnable. Every race was local; there was no statewide message (although there were overarching themes). In-depth polling and research was used to develop strategy and messaging in every case.
Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “Party [entities]… have a tendency to put valuable resources into races they’re probably not going to win because activists demand it and they want to make friends…The people at the Roundtable recognized that they, for all intents and purposes, were the party…That wasn’t such a bad thing. They wouldn’t allow themselves to be caught up in interpersonal politics…Everyone had a common goal and it wasn’t to win friends. It was to win elections. That was the measure by which they would succeed or fail.”
Campaign budgets were developed on the question: “How much does it take to win?” NOT: “How much do we think we can raise?” “How much has been spent in the past?” “How much ‘should’ we spend?” The only cost/benefit analysis that mattered to them was winning the seat and gaining control. The defining philosophy guiding budget decisions was “overwhelming force”. They didn’t care how much money was spent; they only cared about winning. They adopted the attitude that it was cheaper to win and advance than to defend after losing. No matter how much it costs, winning is less expensive than losing.
Illustration: MN Governor’s Race: Republican Tom Emmer lost the election by 8,700 votes. For want of 8,700 votes, Republicans now contend with a governor who blocked our budget, blocked our redistricting maps, blocked our government reforms and now leads a very well-funded, well-organized opposition on everything from taxes to constitutional amendments. Now various Republican groups are on defense, trying to raise roughly $2-3 million to defend redistricting in the courts, defend against union activism, and pay legal costs for a recount. That’s $2 to $3 million the GOP is paying because we lost. Could the GOP have won 8,700 more votes with another $3 million in campaign funds before the election? The fact is, we’re going to spend the money anyway. We can choose to spend the money on offense or on defense, but it’s going to be spent one way or another. Wouldn’t you rather spend it to win?
Organizational structures were purposely kept separate to make money tracking more difficult. The Roundtable (which morphed into Colorado Democracy Alliance, ‘CoDA’) brought participating groups and funders to the table together and matched them up – like a dating service – rather than acting as a clearing house for contributions. 527s, C4s and other organizations deliberately shifted over time, changing names and becoming ever more complicated to befuddle opposition research. Their legal goal was the exact opposite of transparency.
The Roundtable’s plan carefully included every method of obstruction, obfuscation and intimidation available, including overpowering media of every kind and legal action for everything and everything. Truth or legitimacy had no bearing on actions, only turning advantage to gain power. Tactics were designed to keep opposition on defense and suck up opposition donor money in legal bills so it could not be used on the campaigns.
Democrat attorneys were brought in for the express purpose of filing nuisance lawsuits against every organization and candidate that was competitive.
“Professional” activists were used to threaten, intimidate and bully opposition donors and volunteers. Training camps were developed based on the mob tactics anarchists used during the G8 and G20 summits; trainings were hosted and filtered through specific unions, particularly SEIU.
Media outlets were co-opted either by “making friends” with the right people and nurturing those relationships, or arranging for financial help by liberal investors into new or troubled outlets to build them up and strengthen natural loyalties.
Every action was coordinated through the Roundtable. There was no truly unplanned or uncoordinated activity. “Random” or “coincidental” events were never truly random or coincidental. Rapid response to spontaneous opportunities was done through Twitter, text messaging and Facebook direct messaging. Lead “activists” were paid professional chaos creators, not volunteers who do things in their spare time.
Their main strategy was to discredit and demonize the opponent in every way possible while protecting their own candidate in every way possible.
Excerpt from, “The Blueprint”: “In the new arena, candidates are bit players in their own campaigns. It’s almost as if they don’t exist as people, but as biographies to be massaged, amplified and distorted by powerful campaign tactics.”
Overwhelming force and deep negativity were the tactics of choice because they work the fastest. At the same time, the Democrats hysterically decried and litigated (and were compassionately amplified by friendly legacy media) every minor attempt by Republicans to do the same. Class, race and lifestyle warfare were routinely used to great effect with a general electorate that was demoralized by an entrenched recession and subliminal (or not so subliminal) guilt trips over race and immigration.
Illustration: MN Governor’s race: We saw very little of Mark Dayton on the campaign trail in person. We made the mistake of thinking it was because he was so erratic as a candidate his handlers had to keep him hidden. In reality, they were just carrying out their intended strategy, and he was a compliant candidate. Tom Emmer, in contrast, engaged heavily in Main Street retail campaigning to make up for his smaller campaign war chest. The result was that it kept him in front of the press, exponentially increasing his chances of making mistakes and getting critiqued on the record, giving his opponent new advertising material to use against him. Which is exactly what happened.
After the success of the prototype model in Colorado, the decision was made to create a permanent infrastructure that could be replicated in other states, essentially franchising their system. Eighty Democrat donors put up $110 million to fund development in targeted states to develop that infrastructure. Minnesota was in the top targeted states in the nation as far back as 2006, which launched what we now know as A Better Minnesota and its cohorts. The political terrain, strategy and tactics have completely changed in less than one election cycle, bringing in tens of millions of dollars from other states and upending all of our political parties and traditions. AEW does not know how this will turn out. But the regular, everyday people of Minnesota are at the greatest risk of losing this arms race.