The Right-Wing Network in the States

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 25 2011 1:03 PM

The Right-Wing Network in the States

Watching progressive writers figure out how the conservative movement works is like watching someone unstack a Matryoshka doll. First, in March, University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon wrote blog posts and op-eds about the American Legislative Exchange Council, the none-too-secretive but not very well known conservative organization that introduces legislators to libertarian ideas and helps draft model legislation. Later, the Wisconsin GOP asked the college for his e-mails. And after that, Michigan's Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank, asked state colleges for records from its labor departments.

That's inspired Andrew Kroll to explain how the conservative network of state policy think tanks works. He focuses on the State Policy Network, another under-covered organization that has helped these think tanks get off and running.

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Founded in 1992 by businessman and Reagan administration insider Thomas Roe—who also served on the Heritage Foundation's board of trustees for two decades—the group has grown to include 59 "freedom centers," or affiliated think tanks, in all 50 states. SPN's board includes officials from Heritage and right-wing charities such as the Adolph Coors and Jacqueline Hume foundations. Likewise, its deep-pocketed donors include all the usual heavy-hitting conservative benefactors: the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation, which funds the Cato Institute and Heritage; the Castle Rock Foundation, a charity started with money from the conservative Coors Foundation; and the Bradley Foundation, a $540 million charity devoted to funding conservative causes. SPN uses their contributions to dole out annual grants to member groups, ranging from a few thousand dollars to $260,000, according to 2009 records.

According to SPN's website, Roe launched the conservative network "at the urging" of President Reagan himself as a way to shape state-level policy just as Heritage has influenced federal policy. Surveying the political landscape today, Roe's and Reagan's idea couldn't have been more prescient. More than a dozen states are currently considering legislation weakening the clout of organized labor. In many of those states, SPN think tanks have been pushing for similar prescriptions for years via "research" papers, policy recommendations, and talking points that are widely distributed to lawmakers.

A liberal might ask: "Hey, how come my lame movement doesn't do this?" The answer is that these think tanks were created and funded to answer the strong, if weakening, liberal institutions that inform Democratic politics -- universities and unions. (For an example of what conservatives see themselves up against, go here .) Second question: "Well, why the hell haven't I heard about them before?" In the old media infrastructure, these organizations really only made impacts if they got local coverage or made as experts at hearings. In the new media, they can rocket onto Fox News -- Kroll cites the success the Tennessee Center for Policy Research had with a cheap shot report on Al Gore's home power usage -- and spread reports for free online.

I don't think liberals quite appreciate how broad the conservative networks are in the states. One example: the famous Wednesday meeting run by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform has been copied by conservatives in 46 states. They're often run by local think tank heads who can play the roles of micro-Norquists, and get legislators and think tankers on message about what needs to move through committees, what's working in other states. Norquist and ATR spend a good amount of time cultivating these meetings. And one little-known fact about the first Washington, D.C. Tea Party, in February 2009, was that it was planned by a couple of attendees right before the Wednesday meeting. (The meeting is off the record, but one of the planners, John O'Hara, has written about this in his book about the movement.) The grassroots Tea Party movement in the states had some amount of help from the networks that had already been set up, for decades.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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