Mr. James’s committee is among more than three dozen outfits that have started or reconfigured themselves since the election to try to harness the surge in anti-Trump activism. In addition to political committees, grass-roots mobilization nonprofits and legal watchdog groups, there are for-profit companies providing technological help to the new groups — essentially forming a new liberal ecosystem outside the confines of the Democratic Party.
While the new groups gained early traction mostly on the strength of grass-roots volunteers and small donations — and with relatively meager overall budgets — they are beginning to attract attention from the left’s most generous benefactors.
“We’re in a disruptive period, and when we get through it, the progressive infrastructure landscape may look different,” said Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, a club of wealthy liberals who donate at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. “There may be groups that have been around that don’t rise to the challenge, and there may be some new groups that do rise to the challenge, while others fade away.”
The Democracy Alliance has helped shape the institutional left, steering more than $600 million since its inception in 2005 to a portfolio of carefully selected groups, including pillars of the Clinton-aligned establishment like the think tank Center for American Progress and the media watchdog Media Matters.
But this year, the Democracy Alliance hired Archana Sahgal, a former Obama White House official, to help the new anti-Trump groups, and it suspended its intensive vetting and approval process to recommend donations to a host of groups created since last fall’s election.
The Democracy Alliance distributed a “resistance map” to its donors in July including new groups focused on converting the anti-Trump energy into electoral wins, such as Flippable, Swing Left and Sister District, as well as legal watchdog groups and others focused on mobilizing protesters, such as Women’s March and Indivisible.
Perhaps no group epitomizes the differences between the legacy left and the grass-roots resistance like Indivisible. Started as a Google document detailing techniques for opposing the Republican agenda under Mr. Trump, the group now has a mostly Washington-based staff of about 40 people, with more than 6,000 volunteer chapters across the country. The national Indivisible hub, which consists of a pair of nonprofit groups, has raised nearly $6 million since its start, primarily through small-dollar donations made through its website.
Yet Indivisible has also received funding from the tech entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, as well as foundations or coalitions tied to Democracy Alliance donors, including the San Francisco mortgage billionaire Herbert Sandler, the New York real estate heiress Patricia Bauman and the oil heiress Leah Hunt-Hendrix.
And an advocacy group funded by the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, a founding member of the Democracy Alliance and one of the most influential donors on the left, is considering a donation in the low six figures to Indivisible. Mr. Soros has already donated to a host of nonprofit groups playing key roles in the anti-Trump movement, including the Center for Community Change, Color of Change and Local Progress.
Indivisible would “gladly” accept a check from Mr. Soros or his foundation, said an official with the group, Sarah Dohl. But, she added, the group is committed to ensuring that money from major donors does not become a majority of the group’s revenue “because we want to maintain our impendence both from the funders and from the party.”
The group may start a political committee that could support primary challenges in 2018 against Democratic incumbents, Ms. Dohl said.
“It’s not a secret that we would like to move the Democratic Party further left,” she said, adding that “the party will only get to where it needs to go if it has groups like ours pushing them to do the right thing.” She cited her group’s aggressive opposition to Republicans’ initial efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act at a time when she said Democratic congressional leaders “didn’t really have a strategy.”
Established liberal groups like the Center for American Progress haven’t always been as forceful, Ms. Dohl said, though she added that the think tank “has gotten better at calling on Democrats to stand up and speak more boldly than they have in the past.”
The think tank, known as CAP, has engendered resentment from others on the left for casting itself as a leader of the anti-Trump movement and raising money off the resistance nomenclature. Within a few weeks of the election, CAP’s sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, was offering T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Resist” in exchange for donations of $40 or more. The campaign raised about $450,000 for ThinkProgress, the journalism arm of the action fund, which had its lawyers look into trademarking the iconography.
Daniella Leger, a CAP official, explained in a statement that the group’s legal team was merely exploring “a standard question” about whether to trademark the logo. “The immediate response was no — resistance belongs to everyone,” she said.
But the embrace by CAP has some anti-Trump activists complaining privately that the group is anathema to the anti-establishment fervor animating the resistance, and it is siphoning away resources from the new groups.
The divisions have sometimes spilled into public view.
The leader of a group founded by Mr. Sanders called Our Revolution castigated the Democratic establishment as arrogant “dictators” who want to control the “terms of unity” after her group’s activists were met by barricades outside the Washington headquarters of the Democratic National Committee when they visited in July to deliver petitions supporting a liberal policy platform.
And Ms. Hunt-Hendrix has urged progressive donors to boycott Democratic establishment-aligned groups like the centrist think tank Third Way and the nonprofits spearheaded by David Brock, the former conservative journalist who became a leading Clinton supporter and founded Media Matters and the opposition research outfit American Bridge.
Those groups represent a “neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party” that embraces “broken tactics” and an “uninspiring” agenda “more focused on defeating the right than on creating an economy and society that lifts up all people,” Ms. Hunt-Hendrix wrote in an op-ed article this year for Politico.
Matt Bennett, an official at Third Way, challenged predictions that the new wave of resistance activism would substantially shift the axis of the party. “The idea that all the energy in the Democratic Party is on the far left is premature, and is going to turn out to be the worst prediction of the 2020 cycle,” he said.
Mr. Brock and Ms. Leger both said that their groups have been providing research, polling, training and other resources to the new groups, which they cast as a boon to the left, rather than a threat to more established groups.
“The resistance is strongest when everyone has access to our resources,” Mr. Brock said. Ms. Leger said, “These grass-roots groups play a different, unique role, and their energy is something the progressive movement hadn’t seen in decades.” And a D.N.C. spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa, praised the new groups for their work to “bring about progressive change and elect Democrats.”
Yet one major Democratic donor, the Virginia real estate developer Albert J. Dwoskin, said the fluidity in the universe of liberal groups would cause some donors to sit on the sidelines “to wait to see which ones have any legs whatsoever.” And veteran Democratic operatives are concerned that the proliferation could further fracture the left, widening ideological divisions and leaving groups fighting for resources.
That doesn’t bother Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political adviser to Mr. Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, who has brought a venture capital approach to politics, seeding a wide array of new groups on the left.
“The Democratic Party has been fractured,” Mr. Mehlhorn said. “We believe that by investing in different people and groups to try different techniques that good ideas will emerge.”
Among Mr. Hoffman’s donations are at least $1 million each to two of the groups suing Mr. Trump’s campaign, his administration, businesses and associates — United to Protect Democracy, started this year by a former Obama White House lawyer, and Integrity First for America, which will be unveiled later this year by the pioneering New York trial lawyer Roberta A. Kaplan.
A Silicon Valley-like competition between start-ups might not be the best thing for the left right now, warned Rob Stein, a longtime Democratic strategist who helped create the Democracy Alliance to provide structure to the institutional left.
“Having a thousand flowers blooming at the beginning of a new era is generally a good thing,” Mr. Stein said. “But when you’ve got your back against the wall, too many new blooms can cause message and operational cacophony.”
He warned that the combination of ideological and structural divisions, along with a national party weakened by changes in campaign finance laws, could “make it very, very difficult for progressives and Democrats to drive a coherent message in 2018, and to align behind a single candidate in 2020.”
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