Republican group American Action hopes to mimic Democrats' success

Fred Malek came up with the idea for American Action . . .
Fred Malek came up with the idea for American Action . . . (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

For much of the past decade, Republicans jealously eyed the outside organizations built by Democrats -- groups that operate independently of the party's elected officials to provide polling, messaging and policy advice. Those organizations played no small part in the Democrats' takeovers of the White House, Senate and House in the past two elections.

Many Republican strategists have acknowledged that even such successful conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation lack the political sophistication of their counterparts on the Democratic side, such as the Center for American Progress.

Out of power at every level in Washington, Republicans have adopted a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy -- mimicking some of the most successful ideas put in place by Democrats over the past decade (or so) in hopes of preparing the party for the 2010 midterm election and beyond.

The latest iteration is an organization called the American Action Network, which aims to serve as a "conveyor belt of ideas" for the Republican Party, according to former congressman Vin Weber (Minn.), a member of the group's board.

American Action was conceived by Fred Malek, a major Republican donor who served as an aide to President Richard M. Nixon. "We are a center-right-majority nation, but we are not getting through to the American public and we are becoming increasingly defined as a party of 'no,' " Malek said of the GOP in an interview with the Fix.

The goal, put simply, is to take the collected wisdom being produced from the various conservative think tanks in Washington and around the country and get it into the political bloodstream. "This will give us more of an opportunity to be speaking with a consistent and compelling voice," Malek said.

Malek, who serves as the group's chairman, said that things began to come together in August as his preferred person to run the day-to-day operations -- former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) -- made it clear that he was willing to take the job, and as the donor money became available. (Malek would not offer specific money details for American Action, but one source familiar with the operation said the annual budget is likely to be around $4 million.)

The group's board of advisers is a who's who of Republican politics, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former senators Jim Talent (Mo.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.), former congressman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), and former education secretary Margaret Spellings.

The group has two wings. A policy research arm, being run by Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), will aggregate conservative policy material that can be used candidates. The other wing, run by former House aide Rob Collins, will promote issues the organization considers to be the basis of a Republican campaign agenda.

American Action fits neatly next to Resurgent Republic, a GOP polling conglomerate organized in the spring of 2009 and designed to provide candidates and party leaders with data to back up their policy proposals and pitches to the American public.

Resurgent Republic was an unapologetic copy of Democracy Corps, the polling effort organized by Democratic consultants Stan Greenberg and James Carville. And American Action, Malek hopes, will ape the success of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank founded in 2003 by Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta.

"I was cognizant of how much the Center for American Progress had done to renew their party," Malek said. "I believed we needed to have our own version that would be to the center right what they were to the center left."

The Rubio Express

Former Florida state House speaker Marco Rubio will make a stop in the nation's capital this week to raise money for his Senate primary at an event headlined by, among others, Jeb Bush Jr.

"Jebby," as Bush Jr. is known, is the son of the former Florida governor, who hasn't taken a public position in the GOP primary fight between Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, although many of his past aides -- as well as his son! -- are backing the former state legislator.

Among the other boldface names sponsoring the Rubio event on Wednesday night are Bush White House political director Matt Schlapp, former ambassador Mary Ourisman, and former Tom DeLay aides Brett Loper and Drew Maloney.

The minimum contribution for the event is $1,000, the maximum $4,800. In the final three months of 2009, Rubio, who nearly dropped from the race after struggling to stay financially competitive with Crist, collected $1.75 million -- nearly matching the $2 million that Crist brought in.

Rubio also trailed badly in polls last year, but new surveys show him surging into the lead as his candidacy has become a conservative cause celebre.

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