By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
A year ago, the liberal group America Coming Together was on the cutting edge of national politics, spending tens of millions of dollars on a massive voter-mobilization project in every presidential battleground state.
The dream was that ACT -- heavily funded by billionaire George Soros -- would play a decisive role in getting Democratic nominee John F. Kerry elected president and then remain in business as a permanent force in liberal politics.
Instead, the group this week began sending e-mails to most of the 28 people who make up the remaining ACT staff warning that their paychecks would stop at the end of August. All the state offices have been, or are soon to be, closed.
The news represented a long fall for ACT and its sister group, the Media Fund. The groups had attracted such Democratic heavyweights as former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, Emily's List founder Ellen Malcolm and Service Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern.
The architect of ACT was Steve Rosenthal, who had won his spurs as political director of the AFL-CIO and by 2003 was determined to build a liberal voter-mobilization organization that would be independent of the Democratic Party, labor unions or other traditional interest groups.
The idea captured the imagination of liberal donors. Soros and other wealthy contributors saw ACT as a vehicle for taking the fight to President Bush, whose policies in Iraq and at home they vehemently opposed, at a time when many Democrats in Congress were treating a war president gingerly.
Soros and his close associate -- Progressive Corp. Chairman Peter Lewis -- together put $38.5 million into ACT and the Media Fund. With this seed money, the two organizations collected $196.4 million, enough to set up voter mobilization programs in every presidential battleground state and to flood the airwaves with pro-Democratic commercials in the early spring of 2004 when Kerry's campaign was broke.
By all measures but one, ACT and the Media Fund were a great success, helping to turn out record numbers of new voters. But that one measure was the one that counted. After Bush's reelection and GOP gains in the House and Senate, Soros and Lewis pulled the plug on their support.
Soros "was disappointed by the outcome of the election," said his spokesman, Michael Vachon. "At the same time, he is very pleased with the work that ACT did."
Asked whether Soros will once again open his checkbook for ACT, Vachon said Soros's plans "are evolving and not yet nailed down."
But ACT officials are not optimistic.
For now, ACT will be reduced to a research operation, analyzing strategies to turn out key blocs of voters. Rosenthal yesterday put an upbeat face on the turn of events. "We are still forging ahead; we expect to be doing very serious research in Virginia on exurban and infrequent voters," he said.
"It has proven much tougher to sustain this as something year-round than we had anticipated," Rosenthal said. Now, he said, the task he and others face will be figuring out "just how to ramp up and ramp down" as donor interest rises and falls. Rosenthal will continue to work with ACT, but he said he now plans to start his own consulting company.