The mood at the beginning of the meeting matched the weather: gray and dreary. The warm-up speaker told a joke about how local Republicans could merit placement on the endangered species list, which met with polite laughter. Talk of the most recent presidential election elicited audible groans.
Days after Barack Obama took the oath of office for his second term, about 400 GOP donors gathered in a downtown San Francisco hotel to hear Jim DeMint—who had just resigned from the Senate to take a $1-million-a-year job as head of the Heritage Foundation—explain the way forward.
“This is a battle we can win, and we are winning in many places around the country,” DeMint told the assembled donors confidently. He implored them to look beyond Washington, DC, and see that conservatives were scoring victories in state after state, citing the December move by Michigan Republicans to ram through anti-union legislation, as well as similar laws passed in Wisconsin and Indiana. Some of these victories would influence the Beltway as well. After all, the GOP’s control of state governments guaranteed that congressional districts were drawn in such a way that, in the 2012 elections, Republicans retained a thirty-three-seat majority in the House despite Democrats earning 1.3 million more votes for their candidates.
“You may not have heard about it,” DeMint continued. “We’ve been cultivating bright ideas, building coalitions and working with others like the State Policy Network to make these things happen.” SPN is a nonprofit that nurtures conservative think tanks in all fifty states; its president, Tracie Sharp, was sitting near the front at the event and was warmly acknowledged by the speakers several times.
By the end of DeMint’s presentation, which was punctuated by roaring applause, the audience—whose members included food processing tycoon Jerry Hume and wealthy Bay Area investor Nersi Nazari—seemed decidedly more cheerful. But DeMint’s pitch about promoting state-based political organs in networking groups like SPN wasn’t just bluster or salesmanship: Sharp is among the leading strategists who have made the right’s under-the-radar resurgence possible.
Other conservative leaders have spoken even more glowingly of the way that state-level political investments can shape the future of conservatism. “We have, us fellow warriors for liberty, a rendezvous with destiny,” said Henry Olsen, an American Enterprise Institute vice president, at a meeting of conservative think tank leaders last November at the Ritz-Carlton resort on Amelia Island, Florida. “Reagan’s generation did too, and their task was to plant the tree of liberty in the garden of Roosevelt. Our task is to protect that tree against the gales and gusts of Hurricane Barack, and to help nurture that tree so that it grows into a grove and forest.”
At the same event, Grover Norquist proclaimed that with SPN’s support, Republican governors might “turn their states into Texas or Hong Kong”—laboratories of the free market. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” he added.
Though Democrats largely outperformed electoral expectations at the federal level last year, Republicans made significant gains in several states. The GOP is using this shift to redistribute wealth by cutting taxes on the rich while raising them on working-class citizens, largely through sales tax increases. What makes this year different from past Republican realignments, however, is the massive increase in funds available to conservative think tanks operating on the state level, as well as how these groups have made the goal of consolidating power through attacking unions and similar tactics central to their agenda.
These media-savvy organizations—which frequently employ former journalists to churn out position papers, news articles, investigations and social media content with a hard-right slant—bolster the pro-corporate lobbying efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council. Like ALEC, State Policy Network groups provide an ideological veil for big businesses seeking to advance radical deregulatory policy goals. Interviewed at the San Francisco event this past January, SPN’s Sharp maintained that her organization is loosely connected and has no coordinated agenda. But if the last four years are any guide, conservative think tanks are on the march, working from a similar script to tear down organized labor and promote extreme right-wing policies in state capitols from Alaska to Florida.
Financial support for SPN-affiliated think tanks has increased by tens of millions of dollars over the last four years, disclosures show. In areas with the most concentrated investments, particularly the Midwestern states referred to in DeMint’s speech, budgets for state-level political groups have doubled, outpacing their counterparts on the left. Without control of the White House, corporations anxious to push back against taxes and regulations, along with a cadre of wealthy right-wing donors, have invested in these state-level think tanks, partisan media outlets, training institutes and online advocacy efforts. Some existing organizations have been expanded, and others founded to fill what conservative planners viewed as a tactical void.
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