In early December, the Michigan Legislature met for a lame-duck session that should have been uncontroversial—just a bit of housework before the next body convened in 2013. Instead, the GOP majority used the period to enact a dream list of conservative priorities: abortion-rights restrictions, a phaseout of the personal--property tax, reductions to welfare. Its crowning achievement was the passage of a right-to-work bill prohibiting unions from collecting mandatory dues.
It seemed unfathomable that Michigan, once the cradle of a thriving and unionized American workforce, could have turned overnight into a right-to-work state. But then many traditions have been upended since the 2010 midterm elections in which Republicans took control of both legislative chambers in 26 states. (Though a few states flipped sides in the November election, that number still holds.) Longtime progressive and purple states, newly under Republican control, have turned into Texas-lite. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature stripped public employees of collective-bargaining rights. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage and a Republican-held legislature cut health benefits for the poor. Early this year, Republicans in North Carolina (a state under Republican control for the first time in more than a century) approved cutting unemployment benefits by a third.
Several groups can be thanked for the rightward swing in state policy. Progressives have lately focused much of their attention on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded alliance that crafts model policy and even bills for state legislators (it had done so in secret for almost three decades until Freedom of Information Act requests revealed the extent of its work in 2011). But in Michigan’s case and others, key policy ideas had been incubating for years—sometimes decades—across a more loosely knit but effective web of conservative think tanks working at the state level.
Sitting atop this coalition is the State Policy Network (SPN), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. “We’re a service organization dedicated to encouraging state-focused think tanks,” Meredith Turney, the group’s director of strategic communications, said by e-mail, “so we spend most of our time in the states, not D.C.” Thomas Roe Jr.—a member of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisers, longtime board member for the Heritage Foundation, and founder of his own think tank, the South Carolina Policy Council—started the organization in 1992.
SPN’s modest budget—$5.1 million in 2011, according to the latest available figures—pales in comparison to the Heritage Foundation’s roughly $80 million annual budget, and it operates with a light touch. Unlike ALEC, which dictates corporations’ policy interests from the top down, SPN does not enforce strict adherence to a particular dogma. Affiliates have latitude to pursue the occasional heterodox project; the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for example, normally pushes for minimal taxes and regulations (the think tank receives all of the proceeds* from Rick Perry’s pre-presidential campaign book) but also advocates for criminal-justice reforms and reductions to prison sentences. Still, the group’s members have worked together to push what they call free-market principles. Theirs is a long-term mission, requiring years of advocacy to convert what often start out as fringe concepts into palatable policy.
Various state-level think tanks in the network have also served as launching pads for Republican politicians. As a 2007 National Review article on SPN pointed out, before Jeff Flake successfully ran for the House of Representatives in 2000, he served as executive director of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute; Mike Pence oversaw the Indiana Policy Review Foundation before he entered the U.S. House in 2001. As of January, Flake is now a U.S. senator and Pence the governor of Indiana.
The national group operates primarily as an intermediary, helping members disseminate research with “policy exchange” publications covering a large swath of topics from education to labor policy and tech. “It’s a lessons-learned institution,” says Joshua Treviño, vice president of communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “If we’re interested in an issue area or if a sister think tank in a different state is interested in an issue area, SPN is a great place to be able to go and talk to them and find out who’s engaged, what the outcomes have been, and make the connections that need to be made.”
More than just a policy clearinghouse, SPN advises member think tanks on fundraising and running a nonprofit and helps train them in communicating ideas. Efforts culminate in an annual national conference. Last year’s gathering at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida, featured a keynote by Greg Glassman, the video-fitness-guru founder of CrossFit, and breakout sessions on messaging and operations (“Achieving Work-Life Balance in Your Organization”; “Oh Bummer, Facebook Changed Again”). “One of the best things SPN does is sponsor get--togethers where we can share ideas and learn from each other,” says Joseph Lehman, the president of Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the think tank that played a central role in passing right-to-work in that state. “I would say that it is the most exciting and energetic meeting of freedom-minded people that I go to every year.”
The thing about the conservative side is that there’s more of them, and they’re bigger,” says Mark Schmitt, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who helped coordinate liberals’ efforts when he worked at the Open Society Foundation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Full disclosure: Schmitt edited the Prospect from 2008 to 2011). While liberals can point to significant national accomplishments during the Obama era, the progressive movement has lost ground at the state level. Twenty years after SPN’s founding (and two years after Republicans took dominant control of many statehouses), liberals have no equivalent. Progressive think tanks exist in every state. Yet as Chris Fitzsimon of North Carolina Policy Watch points out, their work is “missing the coordination or at least the collaboration across state lines. Certainly we could improve.”
One challenge is that conservatives are more naturally inclined to direct their attention to local politics; progressives tend to focus on fights at the national level. “I think it’s inherent in liberalism to think of national action being what we’re all about,” Schmitt says. “If you go back to liberalism’s roots in the civil-rights movement, we’re all about how the worst state left to its own is going to be bad. So how do you create national programs that supplant the chaos of every state being different? For conservatives, states’ rights have always been part of their platform. It’s a natural thing for them to do. If they can preserve a few states where they have low wages and no unions and no trial lawyers, they don’t need to care what people do in Connecticut.”
SPN’s footprint is small, but its member groups are tied to some of the biggest spenders and most influential elements of the conservative movement. State affiliates like the James Madison Institute in Florida and the Pacific Research Institute in California are beneficiaries of the Koch brothers, while Art Pope, a North Carolina discount-store tycoon, has devoted his personal fortune to reshaping his home state’s politics through the John Locke Foundation, an SPN-affiliated think tank. SPN’s budget and reach have ballooned over the past decade. Family foundations with a conservative tilt—the Searle Freedom Trust and the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, among others—have helped take it from a $685,000 annual budget in 2004 to $5.1 million in 2011, but most of its support has come from Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, donor-advised funds that are structured to keep the names of contributors anonymous. Whitney Ball, president of Donors Trust, sits on SPN’s board. Together, the two secret-money groups have contributed more than $10 million directly to SPN in recent years, according to records kept by the Bridge Project, a liberal nonprofit that keeps tabs on conservative organizations. Beyond direct donations to SPN, Donors Trust contributes millions more to the state affiliates—between just 2007 and 2010 more than $11.4 million to the Heartland Institute in Illinois (a leading climate-change-denial institution), $2.2 million to the Mackinac Center, and $1.2 million to the Illinois Policy Institute, among many others.
SPN uses a portion of its own budget to distribute seed money to new state affiliates—five different contributions in their 990 form for 2011, including $122,000 for the new Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and $90,000 for the new Oregon Capitol Watch—as well as subsidies of continuing studies at their existing affiliates. That year, SPN redirected more than $1.2 million of its budget to grants, including $60,000 doled out to the Mackinac Center for “tax & budget policy.”
Money raised on the progressive side, in contrast, tends to be dedicated to specific causes—asset building, renewable-energy standards, worker protections—rather than expansive organizations seeking to broaden the scope of possibilities for the next generation. “Conservatives give general support,” says F. Scott McCown, executive director of the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas. “Progressives drown you in process and lose sight of outcomes. It’s kind of in the liberal DNA. They’re big into process and talk and accountability and transparency, and in the meantime they’re just getting whooped in the public-policy ring.”
Liberal think tanks and donors often resist affiliation with the wider cause. “Progressives, even when they identify as progressive, are more often thinking of what they do as producing research and expertise,” says Andrew Rich, author of Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise. “And sometimes they’ll even resist being thought of as ideological, so it’s taken longer and it’s been more challenging for progressives to create the bonds between the state legislators and their think tanks.”
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-of-center national think tank in D.C., created in 1993 the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative (SFAI) in 11 states. SFAI bears superficial similarity to SPN in that it has expanded to study outcomes and offer policy proposals in 41 states. But it remains a comparatively minor project housed in a larger organization. It also holds to the traditional vision of the think tank as research-focused and detached from legislative and ideological tussles. “I don’t want to specifically say that the Michigan League is considered a liberal think tank,” says Gilda Jacobs, president of SFAI member Michigan League for Public Policy. “Some of the things that we talk about may be considered more progressive and less conservative, but we’re trying very hard to be able to provide information and research that everybody can use as they make policy decisions.”
Liberal think tanks are hardly ineffective at the state level. Policy Matters Ohio provided the analytical backbone for a voter-approved amendment in 2006 that automatically ties the state’s minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index; its research on payday lenders resulted in a 2008 Ohio law banning their exploitive tactics. The Economic Opportunity Institute in Washington state organized a coalition that convinced Seattle to pass a paid sick-day policy. Still, for all the individual victories, the broader change pushed by conservative state think tanks has eluded progressives. “Since we’ve really had a retrenchment of economic rights over the last generation,” says Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters Ohio, “and a retrenchment of economic equity, it’s hard to make the case that liberal think tanks have been very effective on the economic front.”
In Michigan, after the surprise passage of anti-union bills in November’s lame-duck session, many political observers attributed the state GOP’s newfound bravado to the Election Day failure of Proposition 2, a liberal ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution, enshrining the right of employees to form unions. After voters rejected the measure by 58 percent to 42 percent, Republican legislators seemed to seize the public-opinion opening to implement right-to-work.
But the conservatives’ anti-union legislation can be traced back more than 20 years, when the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, headquartered in Midland, Michigan, adopted right-to-work as its primary cause. “We were the first organization with a statewide voice to say that workers should be making the choice about whether to be unionized,” Lehman says. “And first we were ignored, and then eventually our idea began to be ridiculed. That’s when we knew we were beginning to make progress. We kept the idea alive by setting it, explaining it, talking about the benefits, showing how it could be implemented, until finally it became a real live policy idea that began to move politically.”
The Mackinac Center had watched as compatriot free-market think tanks in other states had steadily built a local case for right-to-work in the late 1990s, and under the auspices of SPN it exchanged research with them. It was already taking Medicaid-reform ideas from a counterpart think tank in Florida and had developed and disseminated a method of analyzing union contracts to undercut teachers’ unions. Over time, as Mackinac continued to release its studies, sending advocates to testify before the legislature and hosting debates against pro-union groups, the concept of right-to-work became less foreign in Michigan. By 2006, with the state’s economy collapsed, a Detroit Free Press poll found that a majority of residents were now open to right-to-work laws. “We took all comers,” Lehman says, “anybody who wants to talk about the data, anybody who wants to talk about the economic effects of right to work, we’ll talk about it. The whole time this is happening, the lawmakers didn’t want to touch the subject. And for good reason, because we were talking about the subject in days when it wasn’t safe to talk about it.”
No doubt more think-tank--incubated bills proposing once-unconscionable policies stand waiting in the wings, ready to be rolled out when the opportunity arises. One would imagine that the progressive sphere would recognize this imbalance following the rapid shifts after 2010. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it changing,” McCown says. “I think people need to realize it’s a long-term strategy. It’s something that’s going to take ten years—it’s not something you’re going to be able to do in a two-year cycle.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that the Texas Public Policy Foundation ghostwrote Perry's book. The think tank instead receives the proceeds from the book.