The book focuses on a new style of campaigning that's been going on in Colorado over the past few election cycles, but what the authors are really describing is a new form of political party. Schrager and Witwer argue that a small group of wealthy liberal donors hasn't taken over the Colorado Democratic Party so much as they've built a new one. Starting in 2003, the "Gang of Four" (Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, Rutt Bridges, and Jared Polis) put together a series of 527s designed to channel tons of money into state legislative races with the express purpose of flipping control of the statehouse. Republicans basically didn't see it coming -- no one had ever devoted this level of funding or strategic targeting into statehouse races before. And because the funding wasn't flowing directly from donors or from the party to the candidates, it was difficult to perceive until it was too late. The Gang is motivated largely by policy concerns -- Gill and Polis, for example, are gay and were really irked by some legislation the state Republicans were pushing. The Gang's funding is largely credited for the Democratic takeover of both statehouses in 2004 even while Bush won the state by five points.
There's an argument advanced in there that this represents a new and better form of party organization:
Everyone knew the party had been notoriously inefficient when it came to spending its money. In Polis' view, this was a function of how people get into decision-making roles in state political parties. Party leaders "were selected because they travel the state," he observed. "They know people. They show up at every dinner. People like them. They manage the palace intruiges effectively."
But that was also a weakness. Applying a businessman's eye for organizational effectiveness, Polis identified what he believed was the main problem with political parties. "There's no reason to think [party leaders] would be good at running campaigns and making tough decisions.... In fact, to the contrary. They would have a tendency to put valuable resources into races they're probably not going to win because they want to win friends. So, if they like so and so and they're running in a very Republican district, they're going to give them help, which takes it away from a very competitive district. So it wasn't a very good way to allocate resources."This is a topic I've been thinking about for some time but haven't been sure what to do with. Dick Daley was a strong party leader, sure, but just how efficient was his organization? If he wanted to control city council or even state legislative votes, he surely could have done a lot less and not really compromised much of his effectiveness. I'm wondering if the stuff Maxine Waters or the Orange County Lincoln Club does today is no less effective than the work done by Tammany Hall but perhaps performed with a lot less overall effort.
By the way, whether you like this style of campaigning or not, it's probably coming soon to a state legislative race near you. Schrager and Witwer note how this model is being exported to other states, arguing that Tim Gill may currently have more influence over more state legislative races than any other person in history.
This book is a great and easy read and isn't just for Colorado political junkies. If you're interested in parties, campaigns, or state politics, or you're teaching courses on these topics, you might want to check this out.