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A New Alliance Of Democrats Spreads Funding

But Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, a centrist group that did not receive funding in the first wave of endorsements, said he believes that Democracy Alliance has merit. "It will enable progressives, for the first time ever, to build a permanent infrastructure to beat the conservative machine," he said.

Philanthropist David Friedman, an alliance partner and self-described centrist, said that "as our portfolio grows, we will fund a broader range of groups."

But some consider Democracy Alliance's hidden influence troubling, regardless of its ideological orientation. Unlike election campaigns, which must detail contributions and spending, most of the think tanks and not-for-profit groups funded by the alliance are exempt from public disclosure laws.

"It is a huge problem," said Sheila Krumholz, the acting executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. She noted that for decades "all kinds of Democrats and liberals were complaining that corporations and individuals were carrying on these stealth campaigns to fund right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups. Just as it was then, it is a problem today."

The exclusive donor club includes millionaires such as Susie Tompkins Buell and her husband, Mark Buell, major backers of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Chris Gabrieli, an investment banker running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts this September. Mark Buell estimated that about 70 percent of alliance partners built their own wealth, while 30 percent became wealthy through inheritances.

Bernard L. Schwartz, retired chief executive of Loral Space & Communications Inc. and an alliance donor, said the group offers partners "an array of opportunities that have passed their smell test." This is most helpful, he said, for big donors who lack the time to closely examine their political investment options.

Trial lawyer Fred Baron, a member of the alliance and longtime Democratic donor, agreed: "The piece that has always been lacking in our giving is long-term infrastructure investments."

There also are a few "institutional investors" such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that pay a $50,000 annual fee and agree to spend $1 million on alliance-backed efforts.

Some Democratic political consultants privately fear that the sums being spent by alliance donors will mean less money spent on winning elections in 2006 and 2008.

But Rob Stein, co-founder of Democracy Alliance, said the party will become ascendant only if it thinks beyond the next election cycle.

Stein has closely studied the conservative movement -- often with envy. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation for potential donors, he argues that Republicans dominate the federal and many state governments because they methodically made investments in groups that could generate new ideas, shape public opinion, train conservative activists and elected officials, and boost voter turnout among conservatives -- aware that there was no near-term payoff. Liberals have done nothing comparable, he said.

"It is not possible in the 21st century to promote a coherent belief system and maintain political influence without a robust, enduring local, state and national institutional infrastructure," Stein said. "Currently, the center-left is comparatively less strategic, coordinated and well financed than the conservative-right. These comparative disadvantages are debilitating."

Cillizza is a staff writer for

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