WaPo: Priorities USA positions itself as center of gravity for the left in the Trump era

December 20, 2016

Priorities USA positions itself as center of gravity for the left in the Trump era

December 20, 2016
By Matea Gold

The super PAC that poured nearly $200 million into trying to elect Hillary Clinton president is remaking itself as a permanent center of opposition to the impending Trump administration, with the long-term aim of helping the Democratic Party claw back voters it lost in the November election.

Priorities USA Action is merging with a nonprofit voting rights group called Every Citizen Counts to form an expanded organization with an ambitious agenda, according to veteran Democratic strategist Guy Cecil, who ran both organizations and will lead the merged group.

The group — which already has the backing of allies such as Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the Human Rights Campaign and the Latino Victory Project — could serve as a major center of gravity on the left as Democrats seek to regain their footing in the Donald Trump era.

Cecil, who has strong ties to Senate Democrats, decided to keep Priorities USA going after private conversations during the past several weeks with senators including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), environmental and union leaders, party donors, local Democratic organizers, and former Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaign officials.

“Many organizations are under assault and will need to focus on their own survival,” Cecil said. “We want to focus on the areas where our individual fights meet and use our financial and political power to lift up and support other voices.”

Priorities will join an increasingly crowded field of independent players seeking to rally liberals to oppose Trump’s policies and rebuild the beleaguered Democratic Party.

Activist David Brock, who leads American Bridge and a suite of related groups, is organizing donors to take part in a stepped-up offensive against the president-elect and other Republicans. The State Innovation Exchange, which serves as a strategy and training hub for Democrats in the states, is looking to expand its presence. And Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy group that grew out of President Obama’s 2012 campaign, recently sent a message to activists asking them “to double down.”

The myriad efforts could tax the resources and attention of liberal contributors, many of whom are dispirited by the election results and questioning whether their funds were well spent.

Still, some of Priorities USA’s major donors already are lining up behind the group. The organization has $10 million in commitments, and big contributors such as Chicago investor J.B. Pritzker have expressed interest in Cecil’s plans.

“I can’t imagine that anyone that watched his work in 2016 isn’t going to step forward and be helpful to him,” said Pritzker, who is considering a run for governor of Illinois.

Cecil said Priorities USA will seek to amplify rather than compete with other efforts, noting that the organization intends to partner with the rapid-response war room run by Center for American Progress Action and similar projects. Priorities USA expects to pair up with at least 25 organizations and will convene regular strategy sessions with allied groups, Cecil said.

“We’re trying to build the overall capacity of the progressive infrastructure,” he said.

To do so, the organization is taking on a broad portfolio, assuming tasks that traditionally are in the purview of the national party.

It will continue the voters rights work started by Every Citizen Counts, which financed lawsuits in states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin and registered 425,000 voters. And it aims to be an incubator to help spread local Democratic models, such as the work of Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who has sought to expand the party’s reach in that state.

Priorities USA is also launching a research initiative called the BluePrint Project, which will focus on voters who backed both Obama and Trump and on Democrats who did not turn out at the polls last month, seeking new ways to engage them.

“We’re trying to break through that ‘either or’ perspective — that we’re either a party that supports the emerging majority or a party that still reaches out to those white working-class voters who voted for Obama just four years ago,” Cecil said. “We can do both.”

The organization also plans to build “a comprehensive communications and digital operation,” Cecil said, “to make sure that the Obama voters who voted for Trump know every time that the president has betrayed them.”

To do so, Priorities plans to tap political messaging experts and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to develop new ways of reaching the public, he said.

The organization’s plans reflect the expansive role that big-money groups have assumed since a series of federal court decisions triggered the creation of super PACs in 2010. Trump advisers are working to launch a group to support his agenda.

In this election cycle, Priorities USA Action, which was launched in 2012 by two former Obama aides, was the most financially successful super PAC ever, scooping up $189 million by the end of November. Every Citizen Counts raised $18 million over the past two years.

Those resources contributed to the substantial financial advantage Clinton had over Trump — an edge that nevertheless proved insufficient to help secure her victory in the electoral college.

Cecil said Priorities aims to learn from the results and canvass activists at every level to inform its ongoing work.

“Priorities had a specific function in 2016, which was to make Trump unpopular,” he said. “While we were successful at that, it wasn’t enough, given the dynamics of the campaign and the two candidates. I have been part of some great wins and tough losses, but my faith has taught me about the power of perseverance, and I believe that is what we need from everyone right now. Dogged perseverance.”