Rob Stein had worked for the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton-Gore campaign and administration, and a private-equity firm. Then he set out on a new task: to convince wealthy liberal donors to pay for political infrastructure that would beat conservatives in policy and electoral contests. He put together a PowerPoint cautionary, traveled the country, and in 2005 kicked off a new group: the Democracy Alliance.
The philanthropic and political giving club invites to its closed-door meetings individuals who have donated at least $200,000 to one of its favored activist organizations. It has about 100 members, who have included major donors like George Soros, Tim Gill, Chris Hughes, Patricia Stryker, and Tom Steyer, plus the leaders of unions that command large political funds like NEA, AFT, and SEIU. The alliance doesn’t collect money itself but rather encourages and coordinates donations to political groups it selects and endorses—21 “core” groups plus 180 other organizations designated to fill a role on its “Progressive Infrastructure Map.” These include operations like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and a variety of electioneering groups (America Votes, Catalist, Emily’s List, Organizing for Action, etc.).
Beneficiaries of Democracy Alliance funding include a wide mix of groups: There are 501(c)(3) nonprofits (for which donations are tax-deductible and public) that must mostly steer clear of lobbying and politics. There are also 501(c)(4) social-welfare groups who can lobby and advocate for public policies, and get involved in modest amounts of electioneering (donations to them are not deductible, but are anonymous). And there are 527 Political Action Committees and SuperPACs, both of which give directly to political candidates (with donations being publicly disclosed and non-tax-deductible).
Donations earmarked through the Democracy Alliance total about $70 million per year. Including funds raised from other sources, just the 21 core groups in the Democracy Alliance portfolio set in motion $374 million of spending to boost liberal policy causes and political candidates in the 2014 midterm election, according to Politico. In private meetings held after the 2014 conservative wave, the alliance formulated a giving plan with four goals: Increase funding for liberal groups. Motivate progressives. Persuade independents. Divide the right and reduce its funding.