Conservatives Seek Activists to Help Republican Agenda

It’s not the Reagan coalition, but it could be just as important.

After eight years of White House management, the coalition game is back in the Senate. While coalition work is often unaccompanied by major newspaper headlines, the relationships between politicians and these organizations — advocacy groups and associations such as the American Center for Law and Justice — is an effective tool in the legislative process, providing a face and a personal story to put on the legislation.

As vice-chair of the Senate Republican Conference, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is now the point person for his party’s coalition outreach. Thune’s role initially belonged to conference chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), but the two agreed to switch duties and put Alexander in charge of floor management, leaving Thune to oversee the essential coalition work.

The switch from White House to Senate brings one major advantage: coalition groups now have direct communication with lawmakers.

“The legislative game is very much in the Senate,” said Kyle Downey, Thune’s communications director. “It’s much more direct access for the constituents of these groups.”

It’s a benefit Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, also recognizes coming out of the transition. Sekulow was involved in coalition work during the Bush years and now works with Thune’s office. He believes coalition outreach is critical for Republicans in the recent political climate.

“You have a very demoralized base out there,” Sekulow said. “[Thune] understands the importance of keeping the coalitions engaged.”

The ACLJ is one of several groups that have participated in almost a weekly series of meetings Thune conducts with advocacy groups and associations on a variety of topics. This past week, Thune had meetings scheduled with several green groups, and he’s already met with fiscal and economic conservatives. In fact, the conservative group was one of the first he brought to the Capitol.

Like most things in Washington, D.C., the project is a two-way street. The meetings allow Thune to introduce Senate Republicans to these groups — Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) have both stopped by — but it’s a way to get feedback from them as well. Downey said strengthening an alliance with these groups is critical because of the stark Republican numbers in Senate.

“They can help us deliver a message,” Downey said. “They can help us reach out to a broader sector of America.”

“Part of it too is using our force multipliers to help get that message out and rebuilding our coalition,” Thune told HUMAN EVENTS. “It’s sort of broken down a bit, and the Reagan coalition that gave us so much success is still out there, but we haven’t been talking to them, and we’ve got to start talking to them and start listening to them. We’ve got to be working together.”

Though it’s not exactly about rebuilding the Reagan coalition, Downey said they’re definitely using it as a “working model” for Thune’s outreach initiative. And, as Reagan demonstrated, a strong leader can make the coalition that much more effective. Sekulow said he’s been impressed with Thune’s organization and communication and — more importantly — Thune himself: he’s a young and dynamic leader.

Republicans can hope the dividends from Thune’s efforts will come sooner rather than later. Downey pointed to the card check issue as one place where he feels the coalition’s work will show even more coordination. While the broader picture for these coalition relationships includes strengthening and rebuilding the Republican party, Downey said it’s just as much a micro-targeting exercise and that the litmus test will be issue to issue rather than any given election year.

“It’ll be a case by case basis, almost,” Downey said.