Friday, May 28, 2010

Colorado Cosa Nostra

Faithful readers may recall my discussion of Colorado's so-called "Gang of Four," a collection of very wealthy liberal activists who have been working to get Democrats elected to the statehouse since 2004.  (See also my review of Schrager and Witwer's wonderful new book on the topic.)  Well, I finally put together a paper analyzing what's going on and will be presenting it at next week's State Politics and Policy Conference in Springfield, Ill.  The paper's a bit rough still, but here's what I found:

To make a long story short, Tim Gill, Jared Polis, Pat Stryker, and Rutt Bridges made a decision in 2004 that they were dissatisfied with Republican control of Colorado and thought they could change partisan control of the state with an appropriate allocation of huge sums of money.  For Gill and Polis, in particular, the politics had a personal angle; they're gay, and the state government had taken a number of recent stances against gays and lesbians.  Due to state and federal campaign finance laws passed on 2002, individual donors and the state parties were limited as to how they could affect and target races, but this small group of individuals reasoned that some 527s could get around this problem by amassing funds and spending them on election communications in a handful of targeted races.

I find that the 527s created by Gill et al (known collectively as the Roundtable or the Gang of Four) is having a measurable impact on Colorado politics.  I trace their campaign finance reports to determine which Democratic candidates they aided in 2004 and 2006, and I find that those state legislative races targeted by the group saw an average Democratic vote surge of roughly four points.  This is huge -- nearly twice the estimated incumbency advantage in these races.  I also identify six state house races and one state senate race targeted by the Roundtable in 2004 in which the Democrat won by less than four points.  That, it turns out, was enough to flip both houses from Republican to Democratic control in 2004, the same year that Bush beat Kerry statewide by five points.

I spend a little time in the paper trying to assess whether we should consider this new form of organization a political party.  My feeling is that it's close, but not quite.  Schattschneider described a party as "an organized attempt to get control of government," and that's basically what's going on here.  But I'm reticent to call this organization a party simply because they seem almost wholly uninterested in nominations contests.  They managed to rise to power without engendering much pushback from the older party elites or the formal Democratic Party leaders in the state, and for the most part, they pretty much take the nominees that emerge from the primaries and try to get them elected.


Jonathan Bernstein said...


I'd of course be interested in reading the paper, but...

I'm surprised that you're thinking that the gang of four might be a party, rather than just one component of the Democratic Party. My initial reaction would be, I think, that this is about how political regulation affects party structure, and how parties innovate in reaction to regulation, but my instinct from what you've written about this (and that's all I know about it, of course) is that this is all intraparty stuff. I'm pretty sure that I'd feel the same way if they were contesting nominations,'s a faction or group w/in the Dems, not a separate party. You don't think that Waxman/Berman is a separate party, so why would the CO group be one?

Seth said...

I'm not suggesting that this is an emerging third party. I'm basically pondering the question of whether this group has actually replaced the Colorado Democratic Party, which is one of the suggestions made in the Schrager/Witwer book.

To follow your example, I'd say that the Waxman/Berman organization was the Democratic Party in West LA for a decade or two. They determined who got nominated for Democratic offices there.

Jonathan Bernstein said...

I'm not really sure if I'm disagreeing...this might be either just semantics or my misunderstanding.

That said...wouldn't we say that the Waxman/Berman org controlled, or ran, the Dem Party in West LA, as opposed to saying it "was" the party? Were there any other Dems who competed and lost nominations? Dems who weren't part of the W/B org but simply went to work for whoever was nominated? That was (presumably) certainly the case for recent CO Dems, right?

I think it's a mistake (and it sounds like it was Schrager/Witwer's mistake, not yours -- in fact that's one of the things I like about your book) to try to oversimplify parties. Sometimes they're just complex, and we need to accept that and work with it.

I'm trying to think of examples that I know about...take the RNC. Clearly, the RNC (even with a real chair) isn't "the Republican party" or anything like it. It doesn't influence presidential nominations, it barely influences anything. I'm okay with calling it irrelevant in many contexts. But I'm not comfortable excluding it from the party...I wouldn't want to say that Rush or a 527 or the House Republicans or whoever has replaced the RNC, full stop.

So when I hear about something such as the CO gang of four, my question is going to be how it fits in with the party, or what function it has taken over within the party, or how much influence it has within the party, or whether it's filled a gap in the party, or even whether it's the most important group in the party -- not whether it's "replaced" the party.

Seth said...

I take your point. I'm certainly not trying to oversimplify these things. Like you, I accept parties to be very complex entities with multiple power centers often competing with each other for control. But I also tend to adhere to Schattschneider's idea that whoever makes the nomination, for all intents and purposes, is the party. So if there's an identifiable group within a larger party who basically always get to pick the party's nominees for years on end, I'm willing to call that group the party. Waxman-Berman would qualify, as would Dick Daley in the 50s & 60s. In other places (East LA, Orange County to some extent), there are multiple power centers.

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