The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic donors plot the future — out-thinking the right

David Brock's message was simple: Democrats, including those on Hillary Clinton's campaign, had let her down. Media Matters for America, his watchdog group, was "never going to overcome the powerful commercial interests" that helped President Trump dominate the campaign. American Bridge, his super PAC, had gathered "reams of evidence of Trump screwing over Americans" that went unused.

“Mitt Romney was also well-branded as a successful businessman until he wasn’t,” Brock said. “Did Hillary’s own campaign rob her of the only anti-Trump argument that would have opened up the all-important economic issue to her advantage? That’s the inescapable conclusion.”

Brock’s speech was a centerpiece of Democracy Matters, a conference he’d organized over Trump’s inauguration weekend. About 150 donors and activists made the trip to south Florida’s Turnberry resort, wandering its stucco collonades and sunlit pool for what had been billed as a conversation on how to “kick Donald Trump’s a--.” It began with a “fire-and-brimstone” (his words) speech by Keith Olbermann and ended with “community building” over bocce ball.

The role of major progressive donors, and of Brock himself, was scrambled by Clinton’s surprise defeat. Trump’s victory upended more than a decade of infrastructure-building on the left, funded in part by the Democracy Alliance, another group of donors. As the Florida gathering unfolded, the Women’s March on Washington was drawing historic crowds there and in other cities; a point of pride among organizers was how little big money had to do with it.

On Saturday, Brock asked donors for $40 million to fund his network — American Bridge, Media Matters, and the viral news site Shareblue. Brock is no longer on the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, acquired by the network in 2014, but its leaders were at the conference. In a roundtable with reporters, Brock suggested that some Republicans who bolted their party over the Trump nomination could be brought into his wing of the resistance.

“We’re working on bringing some Republican donors into our network,” said Brock. “I think CREW is perfect for a Republican like that. It’s straight-up ethics in government.”

In Brock’s telling, CREW could be an answer to Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group that spent the Obama years successfully suing for records about the president and Hillary Clinton. Each of the network hubs had an analogue on the right; in 2016, despite everything, the right’s various watchdog groups had become much better funded. The Democracy Matters conference itself was framed as an answer to the biennial meetings of the Koch network, in which wealthy donors have opened their wallets for candidates and pressure groups.

“We have assumed a lot of things as Democrats, like demography is destiny,” said former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm on Friday. “That assumption has not helped us.”

After the well-funded Clinton campaign, however, the focus of donors on Florida was less on how much to raise than on how to avoid money being wasted. Some of the groups pitching donors in Florida, such as the State Innovation Exchange and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, had overlapping pitches — donate to help Democrats win low-profile state races, undo gerrymandering and build a bench for future races.

“How is it that we don’t have anyone else to run for Senate in some of these places?” the State Innovation Exchange’s Nick Rathod asked in his prepared remarks. “We have to dust off a bunch of old white guys who held office years ago.”

Brock’s self-criticism led seamlessly to his own donor pitch. Their money had built strong institutions, but the scrappier, riskier new innovations on the right had gone around them. “We had a strategy that was just out of date,” Brock told reporters. “Breitbart and the others just kicked our butts.”

The recovery plan sounded a lot like what the Democrats’s progressive wing had called for in 2016 — economic populism — with an added focus on challenging Trump’s legitimacy. A weekend panel titled “The Road to Fascism?” brought together Russian journalist Masha Gessen and Democracy Alliance president Gara LaMarche to discuss how the president’s rise mirrored that of “strongmen” in other countries. Olbermann told donors that “patriotic anti-Trump Americans would have to fight every day to make sure that a foreign-backed usurper is never legitimized.” James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, gave a presentation about “the human impact” of fake news stories.

“The ideological factionalism of the past should be over,” said Brock. If there was a new division on the left, it was between those who would “oppose everything” and those who wanted to “accommodate on some things.”

Shareblue, which was acquired by Brock in 2015, was promising donors that their money would be used for opposition. In 2016, Brock said explicitly that the site was designed to get Clinton elected by breaking through the social-media fog. This month, he announced a surprise hire — the progressive journalist David Sirota, who had spent much of the campaign reporting critically on Clinton’s donations and financial ties.

“We both agree that there needs to be more hard-hitting, accountability, investigative journalism,” said Sirota after one of the weekend’s meetings. “I think people will judge us on our work.”

That attitude pervaded one of the few panels open to the media, a brief forum with the leading candidates to run the Democratic National Committee. It was their third public debate in seven days, and repeatedly, their focus shifted to the ways other Democrats had relied too much on large donors and pricey campaigns.

“I get a check from every single union in the state,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), describing how he’d change the party’s donor structure. “When Verizon’s on the picket line, I’m on the picket line with them. Relationship beats rhetoric.”

Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, detailed how the Republicans were held back in his state. Some donors shook their heads when he reported that the state’s 2016 Senate race had cost $70 million.

“Almost all of that went to corporate media or somebody getting a kickback,” said Buckley. “I’m sorry, folks — you give a lot of money and it’s being wasted.”

The room, full of high-dollar Democratic donors, filled with applause.