The American Civil Liberties Union, rarely an active player in national campaigns, is jumping into the 2018 midterms with plans to spend upward of $25 million promoting ballot initiatives and issues in contested races across the country.
Soaring after a banner year — the ACLU raised $93 million online in the 12 months after Donald Trump was elected president, up from $5.5 million the year before, and its membership quadrupled to 1.6 million — the civil rights group is in the midst of a dramatic makeover. The group aims to rival the National Rifle Association as a force on the left and become a hub of the anti-Trump movement.
“It’s clear that a larger portion of the American public is deeply engaged in politics in a way they’ve never been before,” said Executive Director Anthony Romero — and the ACLU aims to be a hub of liberal political activism.
Most of the ACLU’s spending in 2018 will be directed at Republicans, though operatives haven’t ruled out indirectly going after Democrats on the wrong side of their issues, too. It will not form a PAC or endorse candidates, moves that would mean losing its 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, instead limiting its activity to promoting issues and initiatives. Among them are voting rights, the travel ban, disability rights, reproductive rights and immigration.
The explosion in donors and members came during a roller-coaster year that saw the civil rights group in the eye of some of the biggest political storms. The ACLU catapulted into public view with its opposition to Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries in the early days of his presidency, and experienced a backlash after going to court to defend the right of white nationalists to protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer — a move consistent with its history of defending free speech regardless of the speaker.
Wading into the midterms is part of a larger recalibration for the 100-year-old civil rights organization, as it taps into the same the anti-Trump grass roots that sprouted a range of new Trump opposition groups. It has been rapidly adding new staff and projects, from joining the coalition that organized against repealing Obamacare to taking action to protect so-called sanctuary cities.
The ACLU has already committed to spending $5 million to qualify and propel a ballot initiative in Florida to re-enfranchise up to 1.5 million convicted felons. Romero said if the proposal succeeds in adding that many voters to the rolls ahead of the 2020 election, the effect will be “felt not just in Florida, but across the country, in terms of a very different view of the political map.”
A seven-figure investment in a similar ballot initiative in another state is being finalized, Romero said. And the ACLU has begun to zero in on other races: in Kansas, where conservative Kris Kobach is running for governor; in Wisconsin, to stop Scott Walker from winning another term; and in a slate of races for Republican-held House seats that Democrats are trying to flip. In all, ACLU officials say they expect to get involved in about a dozen races, including for district attorney in California and Texas.
“When you look at what Trump and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions have created, the outrage has made voters want to know how they can reverse the tide,” said Faiz Shakir, political director hired a year ago specifically to bolster the organization’s activity following Trump’s election. “It provides you an opportunity to explain some of these down-ballot races.”
Pushing comparisons to the NRA’s success in turning an issue advocacy organization into a key stamp of approval for elections, the ACLU will issue a scorecard rating officials by their voting records and public statements; host town halls and conduct phone banks; and invest in radio and TV ads to “hang civil rights and civil liberties issues around the necks of candidates and officeholders around the nation,” Shakir said. Voter turnout will also be a major focus.
In addition to Shakir and his existing staff, the ACLU is planning to hire a pollster and contract an outside political strategy firm. Though most of the activity will be directed out of the ACLU’s national headquarters, operatives there will coordinate and direct activity through local chapters.
The ACLU will also continue efforts on the state level, modeling voting rights initiatives off its successful pursuit of sanctuary city ordinances last year in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan; Phoenix; and Dane County, Wisconsin.
Other groups on the left have seen similar booms in response to Trump’s presidency.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit, grew by more than half a million members after Trump’s election, bringing the total to more than 3 million. The Sierra Club, another leading environmental protection nonprofit, went from 6,900 new monthly donors in the year beginning in November 2015 to 57,000 for the year starting in November 2016.
“The biggest influencer on giving in America is the news cycle,” said Larry Lieberman, chief operating officer of Charity Watch, a watchdog organization that tracks nonprofit giving and spending. “Disasters come, people give. Whatever triggers awareness makes people give. And the change in behavior especially in the weeks before and immediately after the inauguration were pretty extraordinary.”
Thirty years after George H.W. Bush cuttingly mocked Michael Dukakis for being “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”— prompting the group to put a then-staggering $250,000 sum behind its first-ever television ad, featuring Burt Lancaster looking at the camera and firing back — ACLU officials say this is only the beginning.
“We have bodies the likes of which we’ve never had before,” Romero said. “We actually have dollars the likes of which we’ve never seen before.”
Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.
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