WASHINGTON — Republicans had just gained control of the Senate and fattened their majority in the House. Surveying the wreckage of the 2002 elections, Democrats cried foul.
They blamed, in part, the right wing's deep pockets. They said advocacy groups clogged the nation's airwaves with venom. And they railed about conservative talk radio and its power to turn out the vote.
"We see it in foreign countries and we think, 'Well, my God, how can this religious fundamentalism become so violent?' " said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in a postelection analysis with reporters. "Well, it's that same shrill rhetoric, that same shrill power that motivates."
Now, a year out from the 2004 elections, Democrats have stopped complaining. Instead, they have their own billionaires pledged to the cause, plotting to mimic the think tanks, advocacy groups and media outlets that have given conservatives a political edge.
The left's new firepower owes something to President Bush, who provokes visceral loathing in liberals, much as Bill Clinton did in conservatives. It owes even more to the McCain-Feingold finance reform law, which bans wealthy individuals from making soft-money contributions directly to political parties -- contributions that the Democrats relied on heavily. Big donors are instead limited only by their imaginations, free to fund corollary efforts they think might benefit their political allies.
So George Soros, the liberal financier who has given away nearly $5 billion to promote democracy in the former Soviet Union, is giving $10 million to America Coming Together, a group working to get out progressive votes in 17 pivotal states. With Peter B. Lewis, a Cleveland-based insurance billionaire, Soros has pledged $5 million to MoveOn.org, an Internet antiwar group.
Joel Hyatt, founder of the Hyatt Legal Services chain of storefront legal clinics and a onetime candidate for the Senate from Ohio, is backing former Vice President Al Gore's bid to start a new youth-oriented cable network to counter the influence of Fox News. Mark Walsh, a former AOL executive who served as chief technology advisor to the Democratic National Committee, has purchased a radio network from two Chicago venture capitalists with hopes of launching an alternative to conservative talk radio.
John Podesta, the former chief of staff in Clinton's White House, has raised $13 million for a new left-wing think tank, the Center for American Progress. And Norman Lear, the pioneer of liberal television shows like "All in the Family," is corralling Hollywood into a $27-million effort to get out the youth vote.
Liberals make no apology for their newfound reliance on big-money backers to influence politics. "America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros told the Washington Post. "And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is."
Liberal thinkers seem happy to have the infusion of cash. "The right has been smarter strategically," said Robert Kuttner, editor of American Prospect Magazine, a left-wing publication that has grown from a quarterly 13 years ago to a 55,000-circulation monthly. "I've been in a lot of meetings where those of us who are liberal and progressive have been figuring out how we don't get outgunned at the level of ideas."
This new war of ideas funded by billionaires could change the face of the 2004 election. Far from ceding the money game to Republicans, Democrats are determined to be competitive. "We're back to the arms race," said Larry Noble, president of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that monitors campaign spending.
To many on the left, the role model for this surge of influence-peddling is the Heritage Foundation, founded 30 years ago with seed money from beer magnate Joseph Coors and a major, multiyear investment from philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife that has topped $25 million.
Staffed by former aides to Republican lawmakers, Heritage specializes in issuing papers timed to congressional debates that push mainstream political thinking to the right. Conservative briefing papers from Heritage fueled the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s, and show no sign of ebbing.
"We want to be the Heritage of the left," said Laura Nichols, the new vice president for communications at the Center for American Progress.
To many on the right, this is a remarkable assertion, since Heritage was itself an attempt to parrot entrenched power centers such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation.
"The problem is not that they don't have well-funded foundations," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading light of the conservative movement. "It's just that their ideas don't sell."