History Wars Exposed: Right-Wing Influence in APUSH Curriculum Update

Co-authored by Katherine Stewart.

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

On July 30, 2015, the College Board, creators of college-level curricula and testing for high school students, released an update to its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.1 The revision came after what had already been a two-year battle and was quickly criticized by all sides. Digital news outlet Quartz published an article detailing “All the ways the new AP U.S. history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,”2 while conservative media sites like The Daily Caller quoted conservative “experts” who groused that the changes were merely cosmetic and still don’t adequately emphasize “American Exceptionalism.”3 But as to why the changes had been undertaken in the first place, the media consensus was, as The Washington Post put it, that “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history.”4 Were these headlines just clickbait or had there been mounting pressure on the College Board to appease right-wing critics?

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who had consulted on the College Board overhaul,5 cast the revision in a more positive light, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “This is a major success for an unpolitical look at American history.”6 However, there was nothing “unpolitical” about the events preceding the revisions.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

The fight over APUSH had been simmering ever since the College Board released its new version of the framework in 2012; it boiled over in several states after the new curriculum was implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. The original redesign of the course—in the works since 2006—was intended to reflect an ongoing shift in history classrooms from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.7 As the authors of the new curriculum explained in Education Week, 8 they’d been motivated by the concerns of AP teachers who felt the existing APUSH curriculum “prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history.” They sought greater opportunities for their students to “understand the ‘why’ of U.S. history,” and to “make its deeper meanings come alive to students.” The 2014 redesigned APUSH was greeted warmly by academic associations, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education.

But the College Board’s attempt to change how students learn U.S. history was greeted by conservatives as a revision of what U.S. history is.9

Education has long been a front in the U.S. culture wars. In particular, conservatives have argued for at least two decades that secular progressives have taken over history studies to inculcate students with a negative view of the American past and present.10 Thanks to a concerted effort from members of the State Policy Network,11 such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute12 and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, high school history has remained a controversial subject on a national level.

“Ben Carson said that ‘most people’ who complete the course would then be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.'”

The APUSH controversy of the past several years is reported to have started when Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher who had started each year with the theme of American exceptionalism,13 slammed APUSH in numerous articles,14 including several written for the Heartland Institute,15 a conservative think tank known for its role in promoting climate-science denial. The Republican National Committee picked up the beat and condemned APUSH as “radically revisionist.” Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and a critic of environmentalism and LGBTQ equality, penned an extensive piece criticizing the APUSH redesign last year,16 using the term “Bowdoin Syndrome” to describe what he called the “intellectual arrogance” fostered by that college as well as by AP examinations. Eventually, Tea Party hero Ben Carson, author of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, went so far as to say that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”17

“Little Rebels”

In 2014, the fight received national media attention when nearly 400 high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, engaged in an unusual form of political theater. A newly elected school board was attempting to create a “curriculum committee”18 that could review any course’s instruction materials, starting with APUSH. Its review criteria held that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”19 A Colorado school board member, Julia Williams, summed up this sentiment in an interview with a local TV news station, saying, “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”

In protest of the school board’s attempt to write civil obedience into the curriculum, the students dressed themselves up as historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sundry founding fathers, and staged a walk out. Some county schools were closed when too many teachers failed to show up for work in protest.20 Jefferson County Board of Education President Ken Witt dismissed the students as “political pawns”21 for the teachers’ unions, but the walkout succeeded in stalling the school board’s plan to change the curriculum22 and helped garner support for the recall of three board members.23

Local Battles, National Strategy

The Jefferson County history battle was colorful enough to capture national headlines. But it was just one in a string of conflicts over APUSH curricula taking place nationwide over the last few years, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and North and South Carolina.

While the vehement state battles appeared to be driven by local personalities and agendas, there was a larger, national strategy at work.

“In Texas, the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.”

The opposition to APUSH occurred on two levels. The first, as in Colorado, concerned control of local school boards and school communities. A second prong of the attack focused on legislation at the state level, bolstered by a resolution passed by the Republican National Convention denouncing the course and urging Congress to withdraw funding to the College Board.24 Policymakers in the Carolinas agitated to eliminate or doctor APUSH at the end of 2014. In Texas, a state that represents 10 percent of the College Board’s market,25 the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.26 In February 2015, Oklahoma state representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill that would bar funds from being used on AP History, although public outcry effectively killed the bill within a month.27 And in March 2015 in Georgia, a lobbyist from the American Principles Project, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., reportedly showed up urging legislators to adopt anti-APUSH legislation, resulting in a bill that passed the state Senate in March28 (but ultimately stalled in the House).

The American Principles Project (APP), which has been advocating against APUSH since at least the Jefferson County protests, was founded in 2009 by Princeton University professor and Catholic neoconservative Robert P. George in order to ensure that the “dignity of the person” is reflected in local and national policies. Some of the APP’s best-known work has been produced in the fight against Common Core, but its leadership is invested in a broader slate of culture war issues. After the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”29 George was the primary author of the Declaration—part of an effort to unify conservative Catholics and evangelicals around a three-part agenda, which they described as “life, marriage, and religious liberty”30—but other APP figures are also proven culture warriors. APP chairman Sean Fieler also heads the Chiaroscuro Group, whose radio ads attacking a pro-choice politician once featured a talking fetus; the APP’s board president, Francis Cannon, coauthored a post-2012 report on “Building a Winning GOP Coalition”;31 and other board members include anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher and Luiz Tellez, cofounder of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legal advocacy group the Witherspoon Institute (which helped fund a thoroughly debunked 2012 study by conservative sociologist Mark Regnerus suggesting negative outcomes for children of same-sex couples32).

In their 2015 lobbying document,33 APP charged that APUSH “requires American History to be taught through a leftist, revisionist lens.” According to APP, the course gave “special attention to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities” and “presents American business in a consistently negative light.”

This type of accusation is an old one, dating back to at least 1994, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney) condemned the National Standards for U.S. History as revisionist political correctness in her now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The End of History.”34 Over twenty years later, Cheney, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, resumed the attack in another Journal op-ed, “The End of History, Part II,” arguing, “The [APUSH] curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.”35

Whose History?

At the core of this debate over “revisionist” versus “traditional” history is the question of whether U.S. history curriculum should be about facts or a primer on civic duty and citizenship. The College Board’s new curriculum already had to stand the test of certain state laws such as North Carolina’s Founding Principles Act, which since 2011 has required that high school students pass a course on the “Founding Principles” (because “the survival of the republic” depends on students being better “guardians of its heritage”).36

A professor of history at the University of Oklahoma asserted that the 2014 “framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities” and warned, “We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.”37 (Scholars of Native American history pushed back on this, arguing in Indian Country Today that, “American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”38)

“At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts.”

In September 2014, the Board had responded to critics, writing in a memo, “At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts…the most vocal critics have prioritized their own agenda above the best interests of teachers, students, and their families.”39 Nonetheless, the force of the pushback was enough to convince the Board to solicit public feedback on their course, which they did through their website from late 2014 through early 2015.40

In the end, with no sign of the debate relenting, the College Board agreed to another revision, which was released this July. News coverage pointed to the pressure the College Board had received using phrases such as “gives in” and “caves to.”

Zachary Goldberg, Director of Media Relations for the College Board, objected to these characterizations, saying that inaccurate media reports about the revision had misled many readers into thinking the Board had removed numerous mentions of slavery from the course. Not only was that incorrect, he wrote, but the revision was hailed as a success “by historians and teachers representing a range of political views [for] presenting a richer and more balanced view of American history. This was achieved not by reducing or minimizing the important narratives of underrepresented groups, but by adding to those narratives and including other important themes and concepts that the 2014 edition was rightly criticized for having minimized.”41

Whether or not the curriculum was rightly criticized, and the College Board was simply “responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation” (as consultant Jeremy Stern put it),42 the events preceding the revisions appear to suggest that APUSH, like much school curricula, has been politicized by a right-wing agenda.

The areas of the curriculum that the College Board noted had received the most criticism—the treatment of the founding fathers, founding documents, free enterprise, and America’s role in wartime victories—underwent the most significant changes and expansions.43 And a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the course shows concrete examples of right-wing influence—some blatant, and some more coded.

“Mention of ‘white superiority’ as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation.”

Analysis of White racial identity and power as an undercurrent of U.S. history is all but erased. Mention of “white superiority” as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation. From 2014 to 2015, the coverage of Native American history under colonialism shifted from describing indigenous people’s attempts to “forge advantageous political alliances” in order to “maintain their tribal lands” to having “repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances” in order to “maintain control of tribal lands and natural resources”—a subtle tweak that seems to speak more to contemporary conservative complaints about Native American control of natural resources on sovereign lands than an impartial reassessment of what happened during colonial times. Where the issue of White racial identity was added, it often seemed intended to mitigate injustices perpetuated against Blacks, by linking the experience of White indentured servants and poor White sharecroppers with the experience of enslaved Africans and impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

While Goldberg argues that “The struggles and challenges experienced – and that continue to be experienced – by minorities as America seeks to live up to its ideals in no way are minimized in the new edition,” many complexities of those struggles seem to have been lost in the Board’s new revision. Quoted in a September article in Indian Country Today, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and a professor at Arizona State University, pointed to the consolidation of “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements” into one statement in the course as an example of how the newest curriculum is “once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix.”44

To The National Review, which was pleased with the revision, the changes amounted to “a good rewrite,” and “balanced handiwork.”45 But the biggest question about teaching U.S. history remains: how can you balance coverage of a heritage that was never based on equity?

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board's AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description


About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

Katherine Stewart has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The Guardian. She is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012).


1 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

2 Jack Flanagin, “All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,” Quartz, July 31, 2015, http://qz.com/469169/all-the-ways-the-new-ap-us-history-standards-gloss-over-the-countrys-racist-past/.

3 Scott Greer, “Experts: AP U.S. History Still Doesn’t Teach American Exceptionalism,” The Daily Caller, August 5, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/05/experts-ap-u-s-history-still-doesnt-teach-american-exceptionalism/.

4 Lyndsey Layton, “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/college-board-rewrites-american-history/2015/07/30/cadadd4c-36d1-11e5-b673-1df005a0fb28_story.html.

5 Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/08/05/429361628/the-new-new-framework-for-ap-u-s-history.

6 Kevin Truong, “New guidelines for AP history: Are they still ‘unpatriotic’?,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2015/0730/New-guidelines-for-AP-history-Are-they-still-unpatriotic.

7 College Board, “Announcing AP U.S. History Course and Exam Revisions” (presentation, AP Annual Conference, July 20, 2012), http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap_ush_course_exam_revisions.ppt.

8 Catherine Gewertz, “AP History Framework Authors Defend Their Work,” Education Week, August 18, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/the_authors_of_the_new.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB.

9 Caitlin MacNeal, “Meet The Man Behind The Right’s AP History Freak Out,” Talking Points Memo, October 9, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/larry-krieger-ap-us-history-conservatives.

10 Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 164.

11 For a more in depth look at the State Policy Network and its links with member organizations see Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/#sthash.kAdMt3Nz.dpbs.

12 Stanley Kurtz, “Madison Scholar Condemns AP U.S. History Redesign,” National Review, September 2, 2014, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/386849/madison-scholar-condemns-ap-us-history-redesign-stanley-kurtz.

13 Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, August 14, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/whats-driving-conservatives-mad-about-new-history-course-264592.

14 Casey Quinlan, “College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum,” Think Progress, July 30, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/07/30/3686060/conservatives-get-major-win-fight-ap-history-classes/.

15 Larry Krieger, “29 Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” Heartland, August 19, 2014, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/19/29-biased-statements-ap-us-history-redesign.

16 Peter Wood, “Update on AP U.S. History,” National Association of Scholars, July 10, 2014, https://www.nas.org/articles/update_on_ap_us_history?utm_source=Copy+of+July+2014+Newsletter&utm_c.

17 Valerie Strauss, “Ben Carson: New AP U.S. history course will make kids want to ‘sign up for ISIS’,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/29/ben-carson-new-ap-u-s-history-course-will-make-kids-want-to-sign-up-for-isis/.

18 Jesse Paul, “Jeffco students walk out of 5 high schools in school board protest,” The Denver Post, September 23, 2015, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26588432/jeffco-high-school-students-plan-walk-out-their.

19 Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, “Board Committee for Curriculum Review,” September 18, 2014, http://www.boarddocs.com/co/jeffco/Board.nsf/files/9NYRPF6DED70/$file/JW% 20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf.

20 Justin Streight, “Colorado Teacher Protest Shuts Down Schools Over History Censorship,” Inquisitr, October 1, 2014, http://www.inquisitr.com/1511072/colorado-teacher-protest-shuts-down-schools-over-history-censorship/.

21 Dr. Susan Berry, “Colorado Teacher’s Union Uses Students As ‘Political Pawns’ in Teacher Salary Dispute,” Breitbart News, September 24, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/09/24/jefferson-county-colorado-teacher-s-union-uses-students-as-political-pawns-in-teacher-salary-dispute/.

22 Jack Healy, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, October 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/us/after-uproar-colorado-school-board-retreats-on-curriculum-review-plan.html?_r=1.

23 Nicholas Garcia, “Jeffco clerk: School board recall organizers have enough signatures,” Chalkbeat Colorado, August 18, 2015, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/08/18/jeffco-clerk-school-board-recall-organizers-collected-enough-signatures/#.VddSnJ1Vikp.

24 Catherine Gewertz, “Republican National Committee Condemns New AP History Framework,” Education Week, August 11, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/college_board_statement_on_ap.html.

25 Merrill Hope, “Exclusive: Texas is ‘Nation’s Last Best Chance’ To Block APUSH, Say Experts,” Breitbart News, September 11, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/Texas/2014/09/11/Exclusive-Texas-is-Nations-Last-Best-Chance-to-Block-APUSH-Say-Experts/.

26 Merrill Hope, “Texas State Education Board Passes Resolution to Stop Redesigned AP US History,” Breitbart News, September 20, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2014/09/20/texas-state-education-board-passes-resolution-to-stop-redesigned-ap-us-history-apush/.

27 Jasmine Song, “Oklahoma Educators Quash Attempt to Ban AP U.S. History,” neaToday, March 16, 2015, http://neatoday.org/2015/03/16/oklahoma-educators-quash-effort-ban-ap-u-s-history/.

28 Martha Dalton, “Georgia Senate Passes Resolution Challenging AP US History Exam,” 90.1 FM WABE, March 12, 2015, http://wabe.org/post/georgia-senate-passes-resolution-challenging-ap-us-history-exam.

29 David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html.

30 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Political Research Associates, July 23, 2013, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/#sthash.w8MSl9lV.dpbs.

31 “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” American Principles in Action, October 2013, http://www.americanprinciplesinaction.org/gop-autopsy-report-2013/.

32 Brandon Watson, “New Documents Contradict Regnerus’ Claims on Gay Parenting Study,” The Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2013, http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-03-29/new-documents-contradict-regnerus-claims-on-gay-parenting-study/.

33 Ayman Fadel, “Anti-Advanced Placement US History Movement at Georgia Capitol,” Aym Playing, March 19, 2015, https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/i-dont-have-time-to-discuss-all-the-scary-ramification-of-this-document-and-the-movement-it-represents-but-i-wanted-to-pass-this-on-to-others-asap/.

34 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994, http://online.wsj.com/media/EndofHistory.pdf.

35 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History, Part II,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/lynne-cheney-the-end-of-history-part-ii-1427929675.

36 T. Keung Hui, “NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2014, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article9237761.html#.VH0R3THF_kK#storylink=cpy.

37 Wilfred M. McClay, “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” Imprimis Vol. 44, No. 7/8, July/August 2015, https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/history-american-democracy-and-the-ap-test-controversy/.

38 Tanya H. Lee, “University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History is American History,” Indian Country Today, March 6, 2015, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/03/06/university-oklahoma-prof-native-history-american-history-159482.

39 “Statement on AP U.S. History.” Advances in AP, September 19, 2014, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/college-board-statement.

40 Trevor Packer, “Letter from Trevor Packer,” Advances in AP, nd., https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/trevor-packer-letter.

41 Zachary Goldberg, e-mail message to author, September 16, 2015.

42 Jeremy Stern, “Left and Right May Not Be Happy with the New AP Standards. Here’s Why You Should Be,” History News Network, August 14, 2015, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160264.

43 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

44 Tanya H. Lee, “New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans,” Indian Country Today, September 8, 2015,  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/08/new-ap-us-history-exam-perpetuates-lies-about-native-americans-161628.

45 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., “The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework,” National Review, August 5, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/422052/ap-us-history-framework-rewrite-defense.

PRA’s Rachel Tabachnick Discusses Reproductive Autonomy in Rolling Stone

PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick is appearing in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine, discussing how the Religious Right has successfully integrated its unpopular social agenda into the broader conservative economic agenda.

Check out the excerpt below, and click here to read the full article “The Stealth War on Abortion.

Rolling Stone logoKoch money, through various “social welfare” organizations it supports, has helped fund a significant part of the pro-life agenda, even though the Koch brothers, like Pope, have never taken a personal interest in reproductive politics, and David Koch has even stated his support for marriage equality. “They know the policies they want wouldn’t be attractive to enough people unless they also included the social-conservative policies, so what’s happened is they’ve merged the social and economic agenda into a single product,” says Rachel Tabachnick, an associate fellow at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. “This is not new, it’s a project that goes back decades,” she says, “and it’s one in which the war on reproductive rights is a non-negotiable part of the deal.”

Connecting the fiscal and social agendas into a single, conservative “worldview” has been the goal of conservatives since the Reagan era. To outsiders, the Tea Party, with its focus on cutting taxes and spending, might seem to rule the party. But looks can be deceiving. Evangelicals, long outsiders in the GOP power structure, now hold large sway in the party through organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. “I’d say it’s kind of baked into the cake,” Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said recently on MSNBC.

“This is what progressives don’t understand,” says Tabachnick. “The public is so obsessed with the big battle between Democrats and Republicans that they miss the larger philosophical and legal underpinnings developed by this permanent think-tank structure that has been working behind the scenes for years. And now they’re in a place where regardless of what’s happening with the Supreme Court, they are ready to maximize every opportunity because of the extremely well-funded partnership between the free-marketeers and the religious right that’s helping to overhaul the country from the bottom up.”


finalfrontierRolling Stone‘s article makes several mentions of the “State Policy Network,” a national group of well-funded conservative organizations dedicated to swaying the national political scene through influence in state legislatures. Senior PRA fellow Fred Clarkson recently published a thorough exposé on the danger of the State Policy Network’s influence. You can read “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics” by clicking here.

EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics

Two networks of conservative, state-level think tanks have matured rapidly over the past three decades. By crafting public policy, collaborating with Republican state legislators, and fostering new leadership for the Right, they have significantly shaped recent U.S. politics. And their work has only just begun.



Via the 2013 SPN Annual Meeting promo video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbyBqRKDLvc

Screencap of 2013 SPN Annual Meeting promo video, via Corey Burres

The Democratic Party’s wins in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and its modest successes in recent Congressional elections, have obscured a series of setbacks for the party in the states. As National Journal put it, the GOP “wiped the floor with Democrats” in the 2010 midterm elections, setting a record in the modern era by picking up 680 seats in state legislatures. The next-largest harvest of legislative seats was the Democrats’ 628-seat gain in the Watergate-dominated election of 1974.[1]The 2010 landslide gave the GOP the upper hand in the subsequent Congressional redistricting process, allowing Republicans to tilt the playing field in their favor and shape U.S. elections for years to come. In the meantime, conservatives have used friendly, GOP-dominated state legislatures to ram their agenda through legislatures—in “red” states and even some states that lean “blue”—on a range of issues: imposing harsh voter restrictions in North Carolina, for example, and passing dramatic anti-labor legislation in Michigan.

The roots of this debacle go far deeper than one or two election cycles and cannot be explained by the normal ebb and flow in electoral fortunes of the two major parties. The seeds were actually sown in the late 1980s, when strategists in the conservative movement came to an important realization. If they were successful in their efforts to devolve much of federal policy-making authority to the states—a key goal of the “Reagan revolution”—they would need relevant resources to elaborate their vision, and the organizational capacity to implement it. The two networks of state-based think tanks that emerged from that realization amount to one of the great under-reported stories in modern American politics. We are just now seeing the implications of the networks’ work, and of the conservative strategists’ vision.

Though several Washington, D.C.-based think tanks were profoundly important in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, few state-level groups existed at the time. Reagan encouraged the creation of think tanks in state capitals, and two related networks of policy shops and advocacy groups emerged from this idea.[2] Both have become part of the deep infrastructure of the conservative movement, and they play a critical role in taking the movement’s agenda to the states, where a fierce battle over the role, size, and scope of government is playing out.

The State Policy Network (SPN) comprises think tanks that are modeled after the Heritage Foundation, in that they conduct research and make policy recommendations to government agencies and legislative bodies. SPN currently comprises 63 member organizations—at least one in each state. SPN members vigorously promote a “free market,” anti-labor agenda, and they are joined in this mission by dozens of conservative and libertarian groups with which they liaise, including national institutions like the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Alliance for School Choice, Americans United for Life, and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.[3]

The second network comprises organizations that are modeled on the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the foundational organizations of the Christian Right that was, for several years, the public policy arm of Focus on the Family (FOF). These think tanks are called Family Policy Councils (FPCs), and they take policy research and political advocacy to state capitals the way the FRC does in Washington, D.C.[4] They focus primarily on reproductive rights, traditional “family values” (especially marriage), and, increasingly, religious liberty. This is in keeping with the agenda of the 2009 Christian Right manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration.[5]

Though the individual institutions tend to command our attention, the influence of the networks is much greater than the sum of their parts. Comprising part of the core infrastructure of the conservative movement, they create synergies by sharing information, resources, and best practices. These synergies allow even the smallest members to rely on the same research as the networks’ largest and best-endowed institutions. Crucially, they also equip the Right with a common set of talking points and understandings, even as the individual institutions maintain the flexibility to tailor their strategies to state-level circumstances.

“The states are our first and final frontiers of liberty,” an SPN video declares. “Just as the pioneers journeyed to the wild west to discover new frontiers and stake their claim for a new life, we must stake a claim for freedom for us and the generations yet to come. Moving the locus of power from DC to the 50 freedom frontiers requires fortitude, bold strategies and a network of equipped trailblazers.”[6]

Division of Labor

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 1989, Republican political operative Don Eberly outlined
how the networks would operate, explaining that there would be a business-oriented group (the Commonwealth Foundation) and a Christian Right group (the Pennsylvania Family Institute). “We have organized a leadership team,” he said, “that is implementing . . . the Pennsylvania Plan.” He explained that the Commonwealth Foundation, of which he was founding president, would function as the state-based equivalent of the Heritage Foundation, while the Pennsylvania Family Institute, where his wife Sheryl was on the board, would be the equivalent of the Family Research Council.

“We now have both economic and social issues coalitions on the state level that meet regularly and are developing agendas,” Eberly continued. “This September [1989], we had our first statewide conservative conference for local leaders and activists, patterned after [the Conservative Political Action Conference] in Washington. The conference, which will become an annual event, attracted 320 people from all across the state and sent shock waves throughout the political establishment.”[7] The conference is still staged annually and it has served as a model for similar conferences held elsewhere—for example, in North Carolina.[8]

The Pennsylvania Plan was a model for two incipient national networks of think tanks—one wing focusing on economic issues, the other primarily on social and cultural concerns—that would share a common free-market ideology and sometimes a common agenda. Initially, both Pennsylvania groups were substantially underwritten by right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife and other “strategic funders” of the Right, as journalists called them at the time.

The State Policy Network was formed in 1992 to coordinate the activities of the business wing, and it was underwritten by South Carolina businessman Thomas Roe. A small predecessor—the Madison Group, which included Roe’s South Carolina Policy Council, Scaife’s Commonwealth Foundation, and the Independence Institute, underwritten by the Adolph Coors Foundation and other Coors interests—became the core of the SPN. Roe, Scaife, and Joseph Coors—the Colorado beer magnate who led his family into political prominence—were all major funders and board members of the Heritage Foundation at the time.[9]

In recent years, members and associates of the State Policy Network have been the recipients of massive infusions of cash that have come largely from secretive, donor-advised funds serving as financial funnels for individuals, corporations, and foundations. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Donors Trust and the related Donors Capital Fund have quietly funneled nearly $400 million from about 200 private donors (including the ubiquitous Koch brothers) to free-market causes since 1999. The Center also reported, in 2013, that Donors Trust had given $10 million to the SPN over the course of the previous five years, and that in 2012 “SPN used the money to incubate think tanks in Arkansas, Rhode Island, and Florida, where it hosted its yearly gathering in November.”[10]

An investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) in November 2013 unearthed an internal list of SPN’s major funders for 2010. It included Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, as well as such major corporations as BMO Harris Bank, Microsoft, Facebook, and the tobacco companies Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) and Reynolds American.[11]

SPN spends about $5 million annually to support existing groups and help start-ups develop the management and leadership skills of their staff and board; recruit and mentor staff; teach strategic marketing and branding; and network with other think tanks to leverage knowledge and resources. Thomas Roe, SPN’s late founding chairman, wanted it that way. “We still do it today,” said Lawrence Reed, president emeritus of the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It keeps us knowledgeable about what everyone else is doing, it keeps us talking, and it stops us from reinventing the wheel over and over again.”[12]

SPN member organizations have used this strategic capacity in the fight for a range of major initiatives, notably anti-labor legislation.[13] According to a 2011 report in Mother Jones, SPN’s affiliates have led the charge at the state level in the Republican Party’s “war on organized labor. They’re pushing bills to curb, if not eliminate, collective bargaining for public workers; make it harder for unions to collect member dues; and, in some states, allow workers to opt out of joining unions entirely but still enjoy union-won benefits. All told, it’s one of the largest assaults on American unions in recent history.”[14]

In Michigan, for example, the Mackinac Center made four policy recommendations to give unelected ‘emergency managers’ more power to terminate union contracts and fire municipal elected officials “in the name of repairing broken budgets,” Mother Jones reported. “All four ended up in Governor Rick Snyder’s ‘financial martial law,’ as one GOP lawmaker described it.”[15] A writer for Forbes called it “one of the most sweeping, anti-democratic pieces of legislation in the country,” investing Snyder with the power “not only to break up unions, but to dissolve entire local governments and place appointed “Emergency Managers” in their stead [emphasis in original].”[16] The legislation became law in March 2011.

Some SPN institutions are small but exert disproportionate influence by keeping a high media profile. Other institutions, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the Mackinac Center, have multimillion dollar budgets and large staffs, and they play an outsized role in state politics by partnering with other institutions, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Since 1975, ALEC has developed model, business-oriented legislation in cooperation with a national network of state legislators and began a more formal and coordinated relationship with SPN and member organizations beginning in the mid-2000s. A study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that two dozen SPN groups, including the SPN itself, are organizational members of ALEC and serve on one or more of its legislative task forces. CMD identified several areas of ALEC’s policy foci in which SPN members play a role: privatizing public education and public pension systems; rolling back environmental initiatives; disenfranchising people of color, the elderly, and students; and attacking workers’ rights.[17]

Several SPN members have shepherded bills through the process of becoming official ALEC “model” bills. For example, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center were responsible for ALEC adopting five model bills targeting public-sector unions.[18]

According to an investigation by the Institute for Southern Studies, the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation—SPN member organizations in North Carolina—published more than 50 articles, op-eds and blog posts fomenting unfounded fears of voter fraud. These helped catalyze passage of a strict photo ID law, an end to same-day registration, and a shorter early voting period in 2013.[19] The legislation will likely suppress turnout among African Americans and young people. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of key provisions of the law.[20]

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in many ways personifies how SPN provides infrastructure, develops personnel, and hatches ideas for the conservative movement. Prior to his election to the Senate in 2012, he served as a senior fellow with TPPF’s new Center for 10th Amendment Studies. In 2010, he co-authored a report that became the basis of ALEC’s model legislation to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).[21]

The SPN’s recent mixing of Tea Party activism (largely funded by the Koch brothers) with more buttoned-down business conservatism is not without its challenges. An SPN “ToolKit” featured on its web site in 2013, for example, urged members to avoid language that smacks of “extreme views,” advising: “Stay away from words like radical, nullify, or autonomy,” and especially “states’ rights.”[22]

Origins of a faux news network

The State Policy Network has now been developing and deepening its capacity—not only to do research and policy work, but also to absorb and integrate new projects—for more than two decades. At the same time, it has faced new challenges and taken advantage of new opportunities in an era of digital activism and new media.

SPN’s adaptability in the new era is illustrated by its development of a news network. Three dozen SPN affiliates now field their own “investigative reporters” on behalf of a recently created member, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which describes its mission as “exposing government waste, fraud and abuse.”[23] It seeks to fill a void created by the loss of a third of the nation’s journalism jobs since 1992. The Center was created by the now-defunct Sam Adams Alliance, which began as a Tea Party organization and was folded into SPN.

SPN’s state news websites collectively produce Watchdog Wire, which publishes work by “citizen journalists.” As the website describes the project, “by covering stories in your local community that are otherwise ignored by the establishment media, you can make a difference!”[24] The Franklin Center claims that it “already provides 10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide.”[25] The basis for the claim is unclear, but whatever its truth, it does speak to the Center’s ambitions.

The Sam Adams Alliance also separately created three websites modeled on Wikipedia: Judgepedia, Ballotpedia, and Sunshine Review. They offer right-wing analysis of (respectively) the judiciary, election issues, and governmental performance. These projects have since been folded into the Lucy Burns Institute, an SPN member based in Madison, WI.  Like many SPN organizations, it has extensive ties to the Tea Party and funding from the Koch brothers.[26]

The Franklin Center and the Lucy Burns Institute are part of a surge of recent development in SPN’s infrastructure that has expanded its capacity to influence both media and public policy, as well as the range of ways by which it carries out its mission. Donors Trust has funneled cash to both the Franklin Center and to many SPN affiliates for their “news” operations. Its $6.3 million donation to the Franklin Center constituted 95 percent of the Center’s revenue in 2011.[27]

This network has had some success. While some affiliates do little more than blog off of Associated Press stories, others feature established conservative journalists. In Oklahoma, the former editorial page editor of the Oklahoman newspaper, Patrick B. McGuigan, serves as the local bureau chief, and he has a weekly segment on the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, called Capitol Report. [28] And stories in the Pennsylvania Independent, a Franklin Center online publication supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, have been picked up by mainstream outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To date, though, the network has shown little capacity to stand on its own and depends almost entirely on funding through Donors Trust. As of August 2013, the Pennsylvania Independent had only one ad—for the Commonwealth Foundation’s own campaign to privatize state-owned liquor stores.[29]

Building for the future

While the State Policy Network has mostly limited itself to the role of influencing public policy through the traditional work of think tanks—research, media work, and lobbying—the Family Policy Councils are more explicitly involved in mobilizing the Right’s grassroots base to become active in electoral politics.

There are 36 state FPCs, which typically have the word “family” in their names, such as the Massachusetts Family Institute, Louisiana Family Forum, and the Family Foundation of Virginia. Others are less obvious, bearing such names as the Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian Civic League of Maine, but they are all outgrowths of the original Reagan era plan to take the Christian Right’s agenda to the states.

A change in the federal tax law in 2004 required 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations to be less political than they had been, necessitating separately incorporated political action arms. As a result, FOF formed Focus on the Family Action, which later changed its name to CitizenLink for the sake of clarity.[30]

While the Family Research Council and its feisty spokesmen, Tony Perkins and Jerry Boykin, disproportionately make headlines, CitizenLink quietly cultivates the grassroots. Spending about $13 million annually (as of 2012), CitizenLink coordinates the work of the FPCs, ensuring accreditation and compliance and providing services to increase the capacity of the institutions to carry out their mission.[31] It also does candidate trainings and works primarily for Republicans in national elections. CitizenLink reportedly spent $2.6 million on independent expenditures in 2012, mostly on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.”[32]

The network has played an important role in the political development and subsequent raw political power of the Christian Right. Many of the older FPCs have been active for more than two decades, crafting an activist religious-political culture, affecting electoral outcomes, and ultimately developing the clout to influence legislation and policy outcomes on such matters as abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Indeed, FPCs have often been leading actors in the state-level battles over marriage equality. The Christian Civic League of Maine played a central role in the seesaw battle over same-sex marriage, which was endorsed by the legislature and repealed by the voters in 2009, then restored by a second referendum in 2012. The League’s executive director and one of its board members[33] launched a new political action committee, Protect Marriage Maine, to carry out the political organizing and advertising drive against the ballot initiative, collaborating closely with the National Organization for Marriage.[34] Such collaborations have been a hallmark of the FPCs from the earliest days.

An important trend in recent years, indicating the significance of the role of the FPCs in the wider Christian Right, has been the gradual adoption of the integrated, three-part agenda of the Manhattan Declaration. This is evident in many ways, including the way that “guest posts” from FPC leaders are introduced on the national web site. For example: “CitizenLink is proud to work with The Family Foundation of Virginia and other family policy organizations across the country to stand for marriage, life and religious freedom.”[35]

“These councils are independent entities,” according to CitizenLink, “with no corporate or financial relationship to each other or to Focus on the Family.”[36] But if FOF and CitizenLink are legally separate entities with different tax statuses, they are best viewed as two parts of the same organization. They share the same offices, board of directors, top executives, and president, James Daly.[37]

There is a method to the disclaimers, though, because stretching the rules regarding federal tax-exempt status of the member agencies has been an issue over the years. Many of these groups engaged in lobbying and electoral activities—such as the dissemination of biased voter guides—beyond what the privilege of federal tax exemption allows. Quietly coming into compliance with the law, and becoming more sophisticated regarding how best to use the several relevant legal categories available for politics and public policy, has been a trend for both state networks, following the lead of The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council.

The creation of separate-but-related groups that can legally carry out various political, lobbying, and electoral functions is an important development in the history of these groups at all levels. For example, the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC), which has focused on anti-marriage equality, antichoice, and pro-school privatization issues in recent years, has divided into three closely related but legally distinct entities: FIC itself; FIC Action (a 501(c)(4) lobbying group); and the Family Institute of Connecticut Action Committee, a political action committee (PAC) that focuses on candidates for state-government offices.[38]

Efforts to draw bright lines for legal purposes notwithstanding, the lines still sometimes blur. “Needless, to say,” wrote Jim Daly in a joint Focus on the Family/CitizenLink annual report, “2012 was extremely busy for our CitizenLink staff as they were actively involved in multiple state legislative and election efforts. More than 2 million emails were sent to CitizenLink constituents regarding important issues. In addition, CitizenLink produced mailers for the November election that went to more than 8 million homes in 16 swing states. And that was just the beginning!”[39]

Two paths converge

Member organizations across both networks share some common issues, such as school privatization and the idea that public education should be controlled locally, though there are often differences of emphasis. The Boston-based Pioneer Institute primarily promotes corporate-style charters and makes little mention of homeschooling, for example, while the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) is primarily interested in homeschooling. “The public schools here have become a primary battleground in the culture war,” MFI declares, “with homosexual activists using them to indoctrinate students with their agenda.” Consequently, “MFI supports the restoration of decision-making authority over school policy and finance to parents, locally elected school committees and taxpayers.[40] In Louisiana, both networks have mobilized to promote and defend Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s controversial voucher program, which extended vouchers even to marginal religious schools, some of which use crackpot textbooks to teach science. One claims that the Loch Ness Monster is both real and a proof against evolution.[41] The Pioneer Institute has promoted New Orleans—where 80 percent of the public schools after Hurricane Katrina became charters—as a model for Boston.[42]

Cross-network collaborations are facilitated by having seasoned leaders who share a common vision and are able to mobilize the resources to carry it out. In creating the State Policy Network and the Family Policy Councils, the conservative movement’s strategists sought to create a deep infrastructure that would be build capacity over time, both in terms of policy development and electoral strength. They were also developing a talent bank of research and policy experts and organizational executives who would create synergies for the movement and shape the priorities of the Republican Party.

And in fact, SPN affiliates sometimes serve as governments-in-waiting for Republican administrations in the states, in much the way that Republican administrations in Washington, D.C., often draw staff from such national think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. In Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld “hired almost everybody” out of the Pioneer Institute following his election in 1994. Succeeding governors Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift also appointed Pioneer staff or board members to crucial positions that enabled them to implement their ideas, notably in shaping the state’s charter school policies. Cellucci, for example, appointed Pioneer executive director James Peyser as chairman of the state board of education.[43]

SPN think tanks have also provided leadership opportunities for policy professionals and politicians. Veterans of the board of directors of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation include former Lt. Governor William W. Scranton III and current U.S. Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA). Three members of Congress—Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and former U.S. Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO)—ran SPN member groups before coming to Congress.

Likewise, the FPCs serve as talent-development agencies. Ron Crews, who led the Massachusetts Family Institute from 2000 to 2004, rode the notoriety he gained in the wake of the historic 2003 Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision (in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage) to an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004. Tony Perkins was the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum before coming to the Family Research Council. Brian Brown directed the Connecticut Family Institute before leading the National Organization for Marriage.

All of this is important because the cumulative experience of these two networks—in fostering leaders, working with government officials, creating collaborations, and becoming part of the furniture of public life in state capitals around the country—is transforming American politics from the state level up. The networks’ growing ability to craft and influence public policy, working in tandem with the American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate interests, and Republican state legislators, has justified the persistence and long-range ambitions of conservative strategists three decades ago, when the movement was just beginning its long march to state power.

[1] Jeremy P. Jacobs, “Devastation: GOP Picks Up 680 State Leg. Seats,” National Journal, Nov. 4, 2010, www.nationaljournal.com/blogs/hotlineoncall/2010/11/devastation-gop-picks-up-680-state-leg-seats-04.

[2] John J. Miller, “Fifty flowers bloom: Conservative think tanks—mini-Heritage Foundations—at the state level,” Hey Miller, Sept. 16, 2009, www.heymiller.com/2009/09/fifty-flowers-bloom. Republished from the National Review, Nov. 19, 2007. See also John J. Miller, “Safeguarding a Conservative Donor’s Intent: The Roe Foundation at 39,” Foundation Watch, Capital Research Center, May 2007, http://capitalresearch.org/pubs/pdf/v1185478634.pdf.

[3] “Directory,” State Policy Network, www.spn.org/directory/organizations.asp.

[4] Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” Public Eye, Summer/Fall 1999, www.politicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/02/PE-Summer-Fall-1999.pdf. In addition to the pieces cited in this essay, see Jason Deparle, “Right-of-Center Guru Goes Wide With the Gospel of Small Government,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/us/politics/17thinktank.html?_r=0&pagewanted=all; and Lee Fang, “The Right Leans In: Media-savvy conservative think tanks take aim and fire at progressive power bases in the states,” Nation, Mar. 26, 2013, www.thenation.com/article/173528/right-leans#.

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Public Eye, July 23, 2013, www.politicalresearch.org/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance.

[6] “SPN Annual Meeting Promo 1,” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbyBqRKDLvc.

[7] Don E. Eberly, “The States:  The New Policy Battleground, Lecture # 225,” The Heritage Foundation, Oct. 27, 1989, www.heritage.org/research/lecture/the-states-the-new-policy-battleground.

[8] “Conservative Leadership Conference,” Civitas, http://clc2014.com.

[9] Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-level Think Tanks.”

[10] Paul Abowd, “Donors use charity to push free-market policies in states: Nonprofit group lets donors fly ‘totally under the radar,’” Center for Public Integrity, Feb. 14, 2013, www.publicintegrity.org/2013/02/14/12181/donors-use-charity-push-free-market-policies-states.

[11] “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,” Stinktanks.org, Center for Media and Democracy, Nov. 2013. http://stinktanks.org/national.

[12] John J. Miller, “Safeguarding a Conservative Donor’s Intent:  The Roe Foundation at 39,” Foundation Watch, Capital Research Center, May 2007, http://capitalresearch.org/pubs/pdf/v1185478634.pdf.

[13] “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,” http://stinktanks.org/national.

[14] Andy Kroll, “The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions,” Mother Jones, April 25, 2011, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/04/state-policy-network-union-bargaining/.

[15] Kroll, “The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions.”

[16] Erik Kain, “Michigan Governor Plays Fast and Loose with Democracy, Invokes Radical New Powers,” Forbes, March 11, 2011, www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/03/11/michigan-governor-plays-fast-and-loose-with-democracy-invokes-radical-new-powers.

[17] EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government, http://stinktanks.org/national.

[18] Paul Abowd, “ALEC anti-union push includes key players from Michigan, Arizona think tanks,” Center for Public Integrity, May 17, 2012, https://www.publicintegrity.org/2012/05/17/8890/alec-anti-union-push-includes-key-players-michigan-arizona-think-tanks.

[19] Sue Sturgis, “Special Investigation: How Art Pope helped turn back the clock on voting rights in North Carolina,” Institute for Southern Studies, Aug. 2013, http://www.southernstudies.org/2013/08/special-investigation-how-art-pope-helped-turn-bac.html.

[20] Charlie Savage, Justice Department Poised to File Lawsuit Over Voter ID Law,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/us/politics/justice-department-poised-to-file-lawsuit-over-voter-id-law-in-north-carolina.html.

[21] Mary Tuma, “Ted Cruz Used Texas to Create ALEC’s Anti-Obamacare Legislation,” Current, Oct. 16, 2013, http://sacurrent.com/news/ted-cruz-used-texas-to-create-alec-s-anti-obamacare-legislation-1.1569056; Ted Cruz,  “Texas Public Policy Foundation report gives states options for pushing back on federal overreach,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, Nov. 18, 2010, www.texaspolicy.com/press/texas-public-policy-foundation-report-gives-states-options-pushing-back-federal-overreach; Ted Cruz and Mario Loyola, “Reclaiming the Constitution Towards and Agenda for State Action,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, Nov. 2010, www.texaspolicy.com/sites/default/files/documents/2010-11-RR11-TenthAmendment-mloyola-posting.pdf.

[22] “A Tool Kit to Keep Government Local People, Local Decisions, Local Solutions,” State Policy Network and State Budget Solutions, 2013, www.federalisminaction.com/wp-content/uploads/Federalism-In-Action_Toolkit_FINAL.pdf.

[23] Jason Stverak, Media Shield Law Doesn’t Protect First Amendment, Free Press, The Franklin Center, Sept. 16, 2013, http://franklincenterhq.org/8258/media-shield-law-doesnt-protect-first-amendment-free-press.

[24] “About Watchdog Wire,” The Franklin Center, Watchdog Wire, May 25, 2012, http://watchdogwire.com/about-the-franklin-center.

[25] “Driving the News:  How right wing funders are manufacturing news and influencing public policy in Pennsylvania,” Keystone Progress, Aug. 2013, www.scribd.com/doc/159802911 (subscription required).

[26] Sara Jerving, “The Lucy Burns Institute (Publishers of Ballotpedia, Judgepedia and WikiFOIA) and Her Right-Wing Bedfellows,” The Center for Media and Democracy, Nov. 26, 2012, www.prwatch.org/news/2012/11/11791/lucy-burns-institute-publishers-ballotpedia-judgepedia-and-wikifoia-and-her-right.

[27] Abowd, “ALEC anti-union push includes key players from Michigan, Arizona think tanks.”

[28] McGuigan reported on SPN’s national convention in Oklahoma City without disclosing his relationship to the Franklin Center or the Franklin Center’s relationship to the SPN and the host affiliate, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. See “Capitol Report: National gathering in Oklahoma City focuses on public policy,” YouTube, Sept. 30, 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8OuSdH75tU.

[29] “Driving the News: How right wing funders are manufacturing news and influencing public policy in Pennsylvania,” Keystone Progress, Aug. 2013, www.scribd.com/doc/159802911/Driving-the-News (subscription required).

[30] Electa Draper, “Focus on the Family rebrands political arm as CitizenLink,” Denver Post, May 20, 2010, www.denverpost.com/news/ci_15121872.

[31] “CitizenLink,” Charity Navigator, www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.profile&ein=200960855#.Um6pAvmkpoE.

[32] “Exclusive: Largest Dark Money Groups Share Funds, Hide Links,” OpenSecretsBlog, Sep. 10, 2013, www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/09/exclusive-largest-dark-money-donor-groups-hide-ties-using-new-trick.html.

[33] In the run-up to the 2012 initiative, Emrich was employed by the Family Research Council as its new “Northeast Field Ambassador”: “Bob Emrich joins Family Research Council,” Christian Civic League of Maine, Oct. 27, 2011, www.cclmaine.org/bob-emrich-joins-family-research-council.

[34] This followed a split with former League executive director Mike Heath, whose extreme statements were seen as counterproductive. The split also led to a rebranding in which the League sought to become known as the Maine Family Policy Council. The change apparently didn’t take, and the organization is now known by both names. Brian Tashman, “Ron Paul’s Iowa State Director Dedicated His Career to Fighting ‘Evil’ Gay Rights,” Right Wing Watch, Dec. 30, 2011, www.rightwingwatch.org/content/ron-pauls-iowa-state-director-dedicated-his-career-fighting-evil-gay-rights.

[35] See Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.”

[36] “Family Policy Councils,” CitizenLink, www.citizenlink.com/state-groups. Individual FPCs rarely mention their close connections to FOF, or CitizenLink, or FRC, which maintains a similar, but not identical, list of affiliates. FRC Action, the 501(c)(4) political arm of FRC, also lists the FPCs as state-level affiliates.

[37] For example, see “Focus on the Family and CitizenLink 2012 Annual Report,” Focus on the Family, http://media.focusonthefamily.com/fotf/pdf/about-us/financial-reports/2012-annual-report.pdf. A separate annual report for CitizenLink is at www.citizenlink.com/uploads/2013/04/2012-CitizenLink-Annual-Report.pdf. Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is also a member of both boards.

[38] “Latest FIC Action Committee’s 2010 Endorsements,” Family Institute of Connecticut, 2010, www.ctfamily.org/FIC%20Action%20Committee%20Endorsements%202010.pdf.

[39] “2012 Annual Report,” Focus on the Family.

[40] “Parental Rights and Education,” Massachusetts Family Institute, www.mafamily.org/issues/parental-rights-and-education.

[41] Bruce Wilson, “Nessie a Plesiosaur? Louisiana To Fund Schools Using Odd, Bigoted Fundamentalist Textbooks,” Talk to Action, June 17, 2012, www.talk2action.org/story/2012/6/17/9311/48633.

[42] Jim Stergios, “6 Takeaways on New Orleans’ charter initiative,” Pioneer Institute, Oct. 19, 2013, http://pioneerinstitute.org/charter_schools/6-takeaways-on-new-orleans-charter-initiative.

[43] Paul Dunphy and Nikhil Aziz, “The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth,” Political Research Associates, July 2002, www.publiceye.org/libertarian/pioneer-institute/index.html; Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-level Think Tanks.”

Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks

Like the famously premature announcement of the death of Mark Twain, reports of the decline of the Right in politics and public policy have been greatly exaggerated. Epitomizing the hidden strength of the Right are a growing number of well-funded, state-level right-wing think tanks. Two networks of these think tanks have been growing for a decade, far from the glare of national media attention. Acting largely as arms of the Republican Party, they are advancing policies at the state level that the Right has been unable to achieve in Washington.

The situation is reminiscent of the end of the 1980s, when conventional wisdom had it that the Christian Right was dead. At the time, prima facia evidence of the end of the Right was the sex scandals of televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker, the disintegration of the Moral Majority, and the failure of Pat Robertson’s 1988 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. The resilience of the Christian Right, and its institutional infrastructure, was little appreciated at the time. For example, for the first three years after its 1989 founding, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition received scant notice before bounding into the 1992 elections as a major player. In 1999, we are told that the public is disenchanted with right-wing lawmakers, perceiving them as mean-spirited and focused on narrow ideological goals. This has been played out most dramatically in the mainstream media’s analysis of the failed crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton. Now, the apparent diminished influence of right-wing members of Congress and the political and financial troubles of the Christian Coalition itself suggest to some that the Right is once again on the ropes.

However, in the late 1980s, as Ronald Reagan’s second term ended and the televangelist scandals were breaking, key rightwing strategists and funders focused on building the kind of political infrastructure in the states that had contributed to their national-level successes. They focused on strengthening and expanding a national network of state-level business/conservative think tanks, each loosely modeled after the Heritage Foundation. The stated purpose of the network was to take the “Reagan Revolution” to the states. The think tanks would provide resources for state-level activists, offer leadership training that would strengthen state-level Republican Parties and, over time, would reinvigorate the Right’s national-level leadership.

The network of state-level think tanks became an integral part of the Right’s infrastructure of organizations. Some of the think tanks were newly created in the 1980s and 1990s; others have their roots much earlier. Like the Heritage Foundation itself, the groups are deeply engaged in the partisan legislative and electoral process, and their research is generally geared to affect political outcomes. One of the earliest, largest, and still most influential think tanks is the Heartland Institute in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1984, it has been a model for other conservative think tanks. Several others began in the mid-1980s as well, but the next major wave followed the 1988 election of George Bush and the continued good fortunes of the state and national conservative movement. Additional new think tanks have been established since the 1994 elections, in which the Republican Party made dramatic gains in Congress and numerous state legislatures and won an unprecedented 30 governorships. These “younger” think tanks have served the newly elected conservatives at all levels of government. Young and old think tanks alike are now organized in a umbrella organization known as the State Policy Network.

Since 1988, a second and parallel network of think tanks, called “Family Policy Councils,” has been developed by Christian Right leader James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF). FOF is a large, conservative evangelical “pro-family” organization with an annual budget of about $110 million and over 1,300 employees. Since the beginning of FOF’s radio and publishing empire in 1977, a political component has been systematically integrated at all levels. Dobson’s daily radio program is one of the largest nationally syndicated radio talk shows in the US, broadcasting on some 1,500 stations in North America and 3,400 stations around the world.

The state-level think tanks affiliated with FOF are loosely modeled after the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, which was founded in 1983 and merged with FOF in 1988. Simultaneously, FOF was creating the first Family Policy Councils in the states. The Family Research Council until recently was headed by former Reagan Administration official and current GOP presidential contender Gary Bauer, who portrays himself as the heir to the Reagan legacy. The Family Policy Councils promote the Christian Right’s agenda and often work collaboratively with the parallel network of more secular think tanks like those in the State Policy Network. They also host Community Impact Seminars that recruit, indoctrinate and train activists who are then folded into political networks called Community Impact Committees, whose activities are informed by the Family Policy Councils.

In each network, several generalizations hold. First, the think tanks of each network have similar structures, common goals, and similar methods of carrying them out. It could be argued that each network is a system of franchising in operation. Second, the think tanks interface strikingly with conservative politicians, especially Republicans. Indeed, in a number of cases there is a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and Republican office holders, especially in gubernatorial administrations. Many of the think tanks do not maintain even the appearance of independence from the Republican Party and its legislative and electoral interests, though they claim to be non-partisan.  

The State Policy Network

Founded in 1992, the State Policy Network (SPN) evolved from the nowdefunct Madison Group, a network of conservative organizations created in the aftermath of a 1986 meeting at the Madison Hotel in Washington, DC. The State Policy Network is based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and serves as a coordination agency for 37 state-level think tanks in 30 states.

The stated purpose of the network was to  take the “Reagan Revolution” to the states. The think tanks would provide resources for state-level activists, offer leadership training that would strengthen state-level Republican Parties and, over time, would reinvigorate the Right’s national-level leadership.

Although corporate money and executives are the dominant presence in these think tanks, they nevertheless do not solely promote business interests. The tendency is to focus on conservative/libertarian campaigns, from welfare reform to school privatization. According to Byron Lamm, the longtime Executive Director of the State Policy Network, all the think tanks advocate “free market solutions to public policy, with an emphasis on individual rights and responsibility.” While there are often different emphases, determined by the interests of the leadership and the local situation, the think tanks share broad ideological agreement and nearly identical political agendas—primarily supporting privatization of most government services and advocating “free market solutions” to public policy issues from health care to the environment. Most have a strong emphasis on school privatization. They favor deregulation of business and oppose organized labor.

Because the think tanks of the SPN generally reflect the business/libertarian wing of the GOP, some of them avoid dealing with such social issues as abortion and gay rights, on which some GOP libertarians such as William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, are often at odds with the Christian Right. Eight SPN think tanks, including the Goldwater, Pioneer, and Heartland Institutes (but none of the Family Policy Councils) reflect a specifically libertarian orientation through their “partnership” in Freemarket. net, an on-line libertarian network sponsored by the Henry Hazlitt Foundation. However, the agenda of many SPN think tanks seems to mesh well with the Christian Right, and others are indistinguishable from the Christian Right’s agenda. For example, the California Resource Institute described a 1999 bill in the California legislature (proposing that the states 140 “charter schools” be unionized like the rest of the publicly funded school system) as an effort to “squash the academic freedom of charter schools.” Such an anti-union stance reliably appeals to both the business and Christian Right wings of the Republican Party, and often generates popular appeal well beyond that base. The ideological differences among SPN affiliates seem to originate in the circumstances surrounding their founding and funding.

Like the GOP itself, there are mutually exclusive philosophies among the think tanks on important social issues, even as there is commonality on others. As if to emphasize areas of commonality, in May 1999, SPN’s Utah affiliate, the Sutherland Institute, co-hosted a conference with the Heritage Foundation, featuring Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese. The conference theme was “Federalism.” As Sutherland explained: “For those not familiar with the term, federalism is about devolving power: taking power out of the hands of a distant, bloated federal government and putting it into the hands of states, local governments, and most importantly, individual American citizens.”

Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute is typical of SPN members in projecting an appearance of intellectual rigor while pursuing an unquestionably ideological agenda. The Institute states that its mission is to “change the intellectual climate of Massachusetts.” One of its subsidiary projects, called “The Center for Restructuring Government,” seeks to identify “specific opportunities to streamline government through introducing competition or eliminating unnecessary regulation.” To do this, the Center publishes, among other things, “White Papers” that analyze “opportunities to introduce competition to the delivery of public services, or calculate the compliance costs of particular regulations,” and sponsors a “Better Government Competition.”

Such activities follow closely the model provided by national think tanks, especially the Heritage Foundation, which has historically hitched its research to public policy agendas and action plans. Departing from the tradition of independent scholarship or academic analysis associated with think tanks, the purpose is for research to have political impact. Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner explained that, “We don’t just stress credibility… We stress an efficient, effective delivery system. Production is one side; marketing is equally important.” Ellen Messer-Davidow of the University of Minnesota, who has studied the Heritage Foundation, writes that its “delivery system” for marketing ideas “consists of four marketing divisions: Public relations markets ideas to the media and the public; Government Relations to Congress, the Executive branch, and government agencies; Academic Relations to the university community, Resource Bank institutions (including state think tanks), and the international conservative network; and Corporate Relations to business and the trades. Division marketing is coordinated at twice-weekly meetings of the senior management, but policy research drives the process.” While the state level think tanks are too small to have such a large-scale division of labor, the principles of how to function are the same.

[State policy networks hitch] research to public policy agendas and action plans. Departing from the tradition of independent scholarship or academic analysis associated with think tanks, the purpose is for research to have political impact.

Most of the State Policy Network think tanks are located in or near their respective state capitals because their primary function is to influence state policy, just as the Heritage Foundation’s primary purpose is to influence national policy. Heritage first made a national splash with the release of its book of policy proposals, Mandate for Leadership, for the first Reagan Administration. An unprecedented document at the time, the model has been emulated by the mini-Heritage clones in a number of states —for example, by the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts which titled its 1998 report Agenda for Leadership 1998. The Alabama Family Alliance issued a similar book-length manifesto called Guide to the Issues, in 1998. It features over 100 staff-prepared issue briefs—many based on thinktank research reports on everything from taxes to abortion and the environment.

The method behind the conservative think tank marketing machine is, according to Messer-Davidow, to conflate expertise in the sense of “knowledge produced by scholarly methods” with the expertise emanating from the “aura of authority surrounding those who practice this knowledge.” “In this way,” she concludes, “the think tanks have constituted an ‘academized’ aura of authority upon which conservatives have capitalized to advance their political agenda.”

Part of the purpose of networking research findings and ideas, according to Hal Eberle, a director of the South Carolina Policy Council, is that members of school boards and state legislatures are often “part-timers, mostly business people and professionals. They’re used to rubber stamping what the bureaucracy wants or the way things have always been done. But if you just show them how something has been done better somewhere else, you can really change their minds.” Thus it is common to see studies done in one state distributed in other states. It is also common for a think tank in one state to study policies in other states. For example, in 1998 the SPN Alabama affiliate conducted a study of existing privatized child welfare services in three states, and published a report with the unsubtle subtitle “Models for Alabama.”

While all of the think tanks are highly media savvy in marketing themselves and their ideas, some groups in both networks have established their own media outlets, or have attained a regular presence in the established local and statewide media. All are active on the op-ed pages of the newspapers in their respective states, and are frequently quoted in news stories. Colorado’s Independence Institute produces two weekly public affairs programs on cable television. Vermont’s Ethan Allen Institute director John McClaughry is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio and Connecticut’s Yankee Institute director Laurence Cohen is a regular columnist for The Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper.

State Policy Network member organizations range in size from small operations with revenues under $50,000, such as the SPN affiliates in Connecticut and Vermont, to organizations with multi-million dollar annual budgets, such as Michigan’s Mackinac Center, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the South Carolina Public Policy Council. The larger think tanks exercise significant intellectual and political clout within their respective states. Some have literally become part of the local political infrastructure. The South Carolina Public Policy Council has new offices located in the Thomas A. and Shirley W. Roe Center for Public Policy Research, across the street from the state capitol complex. The building houses a state-of-the-art research and education facility. Similarly, the Mackinac Center has a new building near the Michigan state capitol in Lansing.

The purpose of the Network is to leverage the resources of a range of rightist organizations, from national level to state level, and back. There are a number of conservative “Associate” member organizations that work closely with the members and reflect the fact that the think tanks are not simply free-standing research units, but are an integrated part of a web of organizations that advance conservative and business interests. Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which for two decades have developed conservative legislation in cooperation with a national network of conservative state legislators, are examples of organizations that actively “strengthen” the network of think tanks as Associate members of SPN. Other Associate members include The Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation, Reason Foundation, Cato Institute, Institute for Justice, Hillsdale College, National Center for Policy Analysis, Golden Rule Insurance Company and Landmark Legal Foundation.

Mandate for Leadership

There is also a network-wide pattern of interlocking directors among the think tanks, national Associate members, and key funders. This is an outgrowth of the efforts of certain right-wing philanthropists, who have collaborated with Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner for a generation in building the institutional infrastructure of the conservative movement, but it also reflects the franchise-style nature of membership in the State Policy Network. The presence of key rightists as directors on multiple boards of state-level right-wing think tanks is comparable to the role of investors who personally (or through their designees) guide and protect their investments through seats on corporate boards of directors. Just as such right-wing philanthropists as Richard Mellon Scaife, Jeffrey Coors and Thomas Roe have been long-time directors of the Heritage and Free Congress Foundations, major ideological investors (or their proxies) occupy the boards of SPN affiliates. For instance, Coors family interests have, since its founding, been the main source of funding for Colorado’s Independence Institute (conveniently located in the beer company’s hometown of Golden) and Coors family members have served on the board and advisory board. Representatives of the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, which created the Wisconsin Public Policy Research Institute with a gift of $500,000 in 1987 and provides about two-thirds of its annual budget, have also been members of the board of directors from the beginning. Howard Ahmanson is a major benefactor and director of the California Resource Institute, as well as a major funder and board chair of California’s Claremont Institute.

One interesting aspect of the State Policy Network is the apparent brokering role played by the Roe Foundation, the personal philanthropic vehicle of retired South Carolina businessman Thomas Roe. Almost all of its annual grant making goes to SPN member and associate member organizations and Thomas Roe himself chairs the board of the State Policy Network. The Roe Foundation is the single largest contributor to the SPN-affiliated South Carolina Policy Council. Roe is a longtime director of both the Heritage and Free Congress Foundations whose leaders, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, respectively, sit on the small Roe Foundation board, along with Byron Lamm, the director of the SPN. Lamm, in turn, is a board member of SPN’s Indiana Policy Review Foundation, and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.  

Shadow Governments

The state level think tanks have often functioned as a Republican government- in-waiting. The longtime principal officer of the Mackinac Center, Richard McLellan, served as chief of Michigan Governor John Engler’s transition team when he was first elected in 1990. Following the 1994 elections, Massachusetts Republican Governor William Weld “hired almost everybody out of the Pioneer Institute,” Laurence Cohen of Connecticut’s Yankee Institute gleefully told a reporter. “Almost put them out of business,” Cohen added. That year Weld also appointed Pioneer Institute founder and elite corporate executive, Lovett C. Peters, as his advisor on school privatization. Weld’s successor, GOP Gov. Paul Cellucci, tapped Pioneer executive director James A. Peyser to chair the state Board of Education in 1999.

In 1997 Gary Palmer, President of the Alabama Family Alliance, explained the role of the think tank in public affairs at Christian Right leader D. James Kennedy’s annual “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference. Palmer jokingly complained that “God has… allowed us to bring in people and train them, so when someone like Governor [Fob] James is elected, he calls me up and raids the staff!” Following the 1994 elections, Governor James called Palmer at home and asked to interview three of his top staff. The governor ultimately hired two – Palmer’s director of Public Policy and his top researcher. Following the 1996 elections, Palmer ‘lost’ two more top staff to newly elected GOP members of Congress from Alabama. Palmer explained that training and deployment of staff into government is “part of the purpose of our existence.”

The original formulation of this “purpose” appeared in the strategic plan to create the Heritage Foundation. Right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan is often credited with the idea of creating Heritage while he was Director of Communications in the Nixon White House. As early as 1970, the Nixon Administration was alarmed at the influence of liberal think tanks such as the Brookings Institution. Buchanan, the point man in researching liberal think tanks for the White House, noted that “[t]here is a clear need for a conservative counterpart… which can generate ideas Republicans can use.”

Following Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Buchanan presented the President with a memo outlining how an “institute” could serve to “create a new cadre of Republican professionals who can survive this administration and be prepared to take over future ones.” Buchanan felt that conservatives were not being considered for administration jobs, partly because there were too few conservatives with the right experience or credentials. The prospective institute, as Buchanan envisioned it, would be a “talent bank” for GOP administrations; a “tax exempt refuge” for conservatives when the GOP is out of office; and a communications center for GOP thinkers. The following year, the Heritage Foundation was founded by Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner, who had been thinking along similar lines for some time. It began with $250,000 from the Coors beer company, soon followed by $900,000 from Richard Mellon Scaife, the ultra-conservative activist, millionnaire, and funder of numerous right-wing organizations.

Unsurprisingly, state-level SPN think tank affiliations grace the resumes of a number of GOP politicians who have risen to prominence in the past decade. For example, GOP governors John Rowland of Connecticut and John Engler of Michigan were board members of SPN organizations prior to their election to statewide office. Tom Tancredo, founder of Colorado’s Independence Institute, is currently a GOP member of Congress. There is also a revolving door between state-level think tanks and conservative GOP staffers. For example, Jeff Judson, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has worked for a series of conservative Texas Republicans in Washington, including serving as Chief Legislative Assistant to US Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX).

There is also a flow of personnel between the state level groups and the national organizations. For example, Doug Munro president of Maryland’s Calvert Institute previously worked at the Heritage Foundation and at SPN think tanks in Arizona and Wisconsin. Patrick Poole, a policy analyst with the Alabama Family Alliance in 1998, became the director of Governance and Privacy Projects for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in Washington, DC.

Legislature Hears Debate on Defense of Marriage Act

Borrowing a successful formula used by Washington advocacy groups, the think tanks have adopted the model of creating various issue-focused “centers” under the same roof. This may mean little more than one or two staff members who work, for example, on charter schools or welfare reform. A typical example is the Center on Market-Based Education at Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. Like the Goldwater Institute, many SPN think tanks have played important roles in passing charter school legislation in their respective states. Once charter school legislation is in place, there is a shift toward providing “technical assistance” to charter schools—often through the think tanks’ subsidiary “centers.” For instance, Florida’s Tallahasseebased James Madison Institute has a Center for Education Entrepreneurs. Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute offers extensive support for the state’s 37 charter schools, through its Charter School Resource Center, which serves as a job bank, publishes a newsletter and even puts out a “handbook” detailing the how-tos of starting and sustaining a charter school.

SPN affiliates in California, Ohio, Washington and Vermont, among others, followed the lead of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute by holding “better government” competitions, which usually involve proposals to save money on, or to privatize, government services. State legislators often introduce the winning citizen proposals, and some become public policy.

Most of the SPN affiliates have academic advisory councils or “senior fellow” programs. Through these devices, research funds are funneled to sympathetic academics, whose work is then vetted by other like-minded academics. Florida’s James Madison Institute has one of the most explicitly academic orientations, due partly to its merger with the Center for World Capitalism in 1994. Among its senior fellows is James Buchanan, a Nobel Laureate in economics.  

Family Policy Councils

In 1999, there are 34 state level think tanks affiliated with Focus on the Family. These groups, which FOF calls “Family Policy Councils,” generally work on issues that animate the Christian Right, such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. They also work on issues less exclusively identified with the Christian Right, such as school privatization and home schooling, religious freedom, parental rights, and gambling. Some, like those in Michigan, California, Florida, and Virginia are significant organizations. Independent scholars have judged the Family Policy Councils in Michigan and Virginia to be more politically significant than Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Others are small and politically marginal.

Focus on the Family’s Statement of Purpose for its network of “State-Level Family Organizations” reads:

“Since 1988, business and community leaders from across the nation have formed state level organizations to invest in the future of America’s families. Each Family Policy Council conducts policy analysis, promotes responsible and informed citizenship, facilitates strategic leadership involvement and influences public opinion. Many do community and statewide work to foster a movement to affirm family. These councils are independent entities with no corporate or financial relationship to each other or to Focus on the Family. Their purpose, however, is uniform: To serve as a voice for the family and to assist advocates for family values in recapturing the moral and intellectual high ground in the public arena.”

FOF often has selected and reshaped an existing state-level organization rather than create a Family Policy Council from scratch. The Minnesota Family Council, for example, was previously known as The Berean League, a publisher of anti-gay literature, such as Are Gay Rights Right?, which has been widely used in opposition to state and local gay and lesbian civil rights ordinances. The roots of Virginia’s Family Foundation reach back to 1982, when Family Foundation chief Walter Barbee organized Prince William County Concerned Citizens to oppose sex education programs in the public schools.

“Family Policy Councils” generally work on issues that animate the Christian Right, such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.

After vetting the board of directors of each prospective Family Policy Council, FOF then leaves the affiliate as a more or less free-standing entity, affiliated with but not legally incorporated into Focus on the Family. Still, there are many ways in which the affiliates rely on the FOF infrastructure. For example, Dobson provides in-kind services including what a former top FOF insider calls “publicity and copy space in special state-by-state press runs of his Citizen magazine.” Indeed, state-level newsletters and magazines are typically distributed in this way.

The structure of one of the major FOF affiliates, the Michigan Family Forum (MFF), was outlined by Russ Bellant in his study, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics. Some or all of MFF’s main components can be seen operating in other FOF affiliates. It produces and markets original studies, as well as those of likeminded groups or of Focus on the Family itself. Although its level of activism has declined since a change in leadership a few years ago, MFF was a formidable agency in the mid-1990’s and a model of the potential political clout of an FOF affiliate.

From its founding in 1990 until 1995, over 1,000 church-based “Community Impact Committees,” spurred and modeled by MFF, were created in Michigan churches. Demonstrating its political savvy, the MFF changed the geographical representation of the Community Impact Committees in 1995 so that they corresponded to the legislative districts in the state. MFF also effectively taps and directs religious activities through its Prayer Network, which organizes prayers for public officials and urges members to contact them to evangelize and to notify them of their prayers. Also organized by legislative districts and headed by “prayer captains,” these so-called “prayer warriors,” or “prayer partners,” develop a personal relationship with their legislators, and become conversant in public affairs. Meanwhile, the MFF’s Capitol News Bureau produces news for distribution to Christian radio stations in the state.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF’s Family Policy Councils produce research reports and poll public opinion. The results of their studies are aggressively marketed to the media, government officials, and the organization’s base constituency, which in turn uses the materials in public affairs activities. For example, in 1998 the Michigan Family Forum commissioned a poll on attitudes about marriage in Michigan, which was conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, a Republican-oriented firm headed by Ronald Reagan’s personal pollster, Richard Wirthlin. The poll was used to demonstrate the numbers of people who are married, where they are, and support for various “reforms.” MFF, like other FOF affiliates, lists divorce reform as its top issue and states that it “is supporting legislation” that will make divorce more difficult. These priorities existed prior to their public opinion research findings, which perhaps coincidentally, were supportive of MFF’s notion of “reform.”

Similar polls conducted by Wirthlin in September 1997 were used as the basis for research reports issued by FOF affiliates in Florida and Alabama. The Alabama Family Alliance used the Wirthlin data to promote legislation which would institute “covenant marriage.” An attack on the “no fault divorce reforms of the 1970s,” covenant marriage offers the option of a stronger marriage contract, which includes extensive premarital counseling and similar counseling if divorce is contemplated during a two-year waiting period. Covenant marriage legislation has passed in at least the states of Louisiana and Arizona.

One of the most significant services FOF provides to its network of Family Policy Councils is a roving team of Community Impact Seminar leaders. Based at FOF’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, the Community Impact Seminar team travels the country training conservative Christian activists to establish Community Impact Committees in their churches, thus helping to develop the base constituency for the FOF affiliates. During its start-up phase in the early 1990s, CIS events sometimes drew hundreds of people: 600 people in Sacramento in 1992; 1,200 in Holland, Michigan in 1993; and 400 in Detroit in 1993. While the Community Impact Seminars are still active around the country, their greatest growth may have peaked. The largest Community Impact Seminar in Michigan in 1999 drew only 70 people.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF’s Family Policy Councils are typically closely linked to the conservative wing of the Republican Party in their states. In California, the principal founders and funders of the California Resource Institute, Howard Ahmanson and Rob Hurtt, are also prominent Republican Party leaders and major funders of GOP political campaigns. Bill Smith, executive director of the Indiana Family Institute, worked for seven years in top jobs for Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN).

Family Policy Councils in at least five states (Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Colorado, and Texas) have produced election year voter guides. Although not as well known as the Christian Coalition’s voter guides, they often exert unrecognized influence. Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI) has produced voter guides for every election since 1992. PFI claims that, since 1994, it has distributed “nearly two and a half million Voter’s Guides.” PFI reportedly distributed over one million voter guides in 1994 alone. The Westport-based Family Institute of Connecticut, which is in the process of becoming a full-fledged Family Policy Council, claims to have distributed 600,000 voter guides in 1996, and one million guides in 1998, which it says were “distributed in every large-circulation newspaper in Connecticut and in dozens of churches….” In Pennsylvania, these guides reportedly detailed “candidates’ positions on a balanced budget amendment, abstinence- based sexuality education for adolescents, voluntary school prayer and Bible reading, school vouchers, development of mandatory national curriculum, national health insurance, fetal tissue research, women’s access to abortion, and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Such questions may not meet the requirements the IRS places on non-profit, tax exempt agencies, which are required to hold to broad educational standards and cannot narrowly tailor their materials to the agenda and buzz words of a particular political party. Questions about the use of voter guides have emerged in relation to at least two Family Policy Councils. Independent scholars Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox reported in their book, Second Coming: The Christian Right In Virginia Politics, that in 1993 the Democratic party of Virginia charged that the Family Foundation and its voter guide partner, the Virginia chapter of Concerned Women for America (a national Christian Right organization), “actually were partisan political committees distributing pro-Republican voter guides and therefore were required to register with the state and disclose their sources of funding.” A Fairfax County Circuit judge agreed and placed an injunction against distribution of the guides. The day before the election, the state Supreme Court lifted the injunction.

In 1996, in response to concerns raised by Americans United for Separation of Church & State, lawyers for FOF’s Ohio affiliate, the Ohio Roundtable, advised them to “significantly alter” their publication in order to conform to the IRS code governing voter guides—in effect compelling them to withdraw their voter guides. Underscoring FOF’s profound (albeit legally separate) relationship to it’s Family Policy Councils, FOF sent out the Ohio Roundtable’s voter mailing (without guide) under a generic cover letter from FOF’s national vice president for Public Policy, Tom Minnery. Minnery urged FOF followers not only to vote, but to get in touch with their respective state Family Policy Councils. Minnery also noted that FOF offers to distribute “Voter Guides to all Focus constituents on behalf of the state FPC organizations with which Focus is associated.”

A number of staffers also flow between the national FOF and its state-level affiliates. Glenn Stanton, who heads the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia, South Carolina, was previously FOF’s Director of Research. Idaho Family Forum executive director Dennis Mansfield has been a leader in the Dobson-backed Promise Keepers men’s ministry, serving as host for the Promise Keepers Radio Network heard on over 300 stations, and as Idaho state director of Promise Keepers.

Some Family Policy Councils are branching out into new areas of constituencybuilding and public policy action. FOF affiliates in Pennsylvania and Alabama maintain “Physicians Resource Networks.” The Network in Alabama claims it can mobilize over 350 doctors to respond to medically-related public policy issues. The Minnesota Family Council has a staff attorney, but calls its litigation efforts the Northstar Legal Center. The Center represents, among others, students at the University of Minnesota who object to the funding of “radical groups” which “advocate homosexuality, abortion and Marxism” from being funded by student fees.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF affiliates often work to develop their own media presence in ways designed to inform and mobilize their constituents. Pennsylvania Family Institute’s Michael Geer has a daily fiveminute commentary and weekly public affairs program which airs on five Christian radio stations. The Indiana Family Institute produces a daily thirty-minute radio program, which airs on several Christian stations.  

Overlapping Networks

Although the think tanks of the State Policy Network and FOF’s Family Policy Councils are ostensibly separate, their agendas often overlap and their personnel are sometimes interchangeable. Most significantly, the networks themselves overlap. Three FOF affiliates (the Alabama Family Alliance, the Mississippi Family Council and California’s Capitol Resource Institute) also belong to the SPN. Epitomizing the relationship between the networks was the election of Alabama Family Alliance’s Gary Palmer as president of the State Policy Network.

The overlapping nature of the networks has been present from the earliest days of the FOF network, which was founded several years after the first SPN-style think tanks had been in operation. Indeed, evidence suggests that rather than emerging independently there was considerable planning in establishing the role and relationship of the two networks and the constituent think tanks within each. Don Eberly, a former Reagan White House aide and founder of Pennsylvania’s SPN-affiliated Commonwealth Foundation, appears to have laid out the working model for collaboration in a 1989 speech at the Heritage Foundation. Eberly, who was also director of the Republican Study Group (the conservative caucus of the GOP in the Congress), detailed not only the operating assumptions of what became the State Policy Network, but how the division of labor, theoretically at least, works at the state level in relation to the Christian Right.

While many think tanks  in both networks produce actual research, and have staff and affiliated scholars, others appear to be, structurally and functionally, little more than standard legislative lobbies and  public relations machines. Most seem to be a hybrid.

Describing Pennsylvania, Eberly declared, “We have organized a leadership team that is implementing a multifaceted organizational building plan called the Pennsylvania Plan, which consists of many of the same entities we have effectively used in Washington. These entities include the Commonwealth Foundation, which is the Heritage Foundation equivalent. After over a year of development work, we have just brought on line the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which might be compared to the Family Research Council here in Washington.”

“We now have both economic and social issues coalitions on the state level that meet regularly and are developing agendas,” Eberly continued. “This September [1989], we had our first statewide conservative conference for local leaders and activists, patterned after C-PAC in Washington.” (CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is an annual event in Washington DC, sponsored by the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom.) “The conference, which will become an annual event, attracted 320 people from all across the state and sent shock waves throughout the political establishment.”

Eberly’s account of the Pennsylvania Plan is corroborated in part by the presence of Eberly’s wife Sheryl on the board of the Pennsylvania Family Institute. Additionally the Commonwealth Foundation shares several board members with, and is substantially funded by, both Richard Mellon Scaife’s Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Philip McKenna Foundation. The latter also funds the Pennsylvania Family Institute, including its bi-annual voter guides. These relationships may also help explain the overlapping agenda of the organizations on such matters as school privatization, and the purported dissolution of the “traditional family.” Indeed, the social policy agenda of both networks blends on some issues. It is common to see both SPN and FOF network affiliates working on, for example, the issue of “fatherlessness,” which is one of the main concerns of Minnesota’s SPN think tank, the Center for the American Experiment, as well as Florida’s FOF affiliate, The Family First.

While most reporting on the phenomenon of state level think tanks has focused exclusively on the State Policy Network, Eberly’s description of the intentional division of labor between the business and the Christian Right-oriented think tanks and their respective constituencies demonstrates why it is important to look at the two networks simultaneously. Underscoring the convergence between these networks is that each network’s leaders and funders also converge as members of the secretive Alexandria, Virginia-based Council for National Policy (CNP), which has served as a classic smoke-filled room of rightist strategizing since 1981. In addition to such previously mentioned national leaders as Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, Thomas Roe, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tom Minnery, Richard Wirthlin, Jeffrey Coors, Howard Ahmanson and Ed Meese, the CNP roster has included Judy Cresanta, executive director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute; former Illinois Family Council executive director Penny Pullen; and former Michigan Family Forum executive director Randall Heckman.

The issues addressed by SPN institutions are presented as public policy concerns but the interests behind them are not always simply ideological. The board of directors of Michigan’s Mackinac Center, like other organizations in the State Policy Network, is comprised primarily of business leaders, including the executive director of the state Chamber of Commerce. Mackinac’s funding comes mainly from the insurance, chemical and tobacco industries, as well as conservative foundations. This is significant in light of the many privatization initiatives advanced by Mackinac studies, as well as the promotion of medical savings accounts, attacks on national health insurance, and the deregulation of auto insurance. This creates at least the appearance of business influence on the research of the think tanks, but conflicts of interest may also be involved. For example, the Indianapolis-based Golden Rule Insurance Company, an institutional member of the State Policy Network, funds a number of state-level think tanks. Its officers also sit on the boards of several. Golden Rule is not only a provider of, but describes itself as the “pioneer” of medical savings accounts. The promotion of this medical insurance plan by “think tanks” which also receive funds from the “pioneer” provider suggests a direct link between the business interests of the donor and the research product.  

Think Tank or Traditional Lobby?

While many think tanks in both networks produce actual research, and have staff and affiliated scholars, others appear to be, structurally and functionally, little more than standard legislative lobbies and public relations machines. Most seem to be a hybrid.

Invitation to Change

Several organizations in both networks have sought to address the problem of pursuing political activities that may be outside their tax-exempt status. Some have divided their research and lobbying into separatebut- related organizations operating out of the same office. For example, in 1998 the Seattle-based Washington Institute for Policy Studies/Washington Institute Foundation, an SPN affiliate, dropped its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in order to legally engage in lobbying and related electoral activities. In 1997, the Minnesota FOF affiliate divided itself into the tax-exempt Minnesota Family Council and the non-tax exempt (501(c)(4)) Minnesota Family Institute to carry out these functions. This is a traditional formula for interest groups seeking to follow the clear rules of the Internal Revenue Service. However, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule.

All the think tanks in both networks maintain the 501(c)(3) tax status which, under current IRS rules, severely restricts the amount of electoral activity and lobbying that can be done. Examples of questionable practices under tax-exempt status abound. The Olympia, Washington-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation produces legislative issue briefs, but no direct research. The staff meets quarterly with the governor and holds weekly briefings for state legislators, yet claims to do no lobbying. The President of Evergreen, Bob Williams, was the unsuccessful 1988 GOP candidate for governor. Executive Director Lynn Harsh was his campaign manager. For years the California Resource Institute has employed three registered lobbyists who work the legislature on behalf of the founders and funders, GOP leaders and Christian Right financiers Howard Ahmanson and Rob Hurtt. Ahmanson is best known for his long involvement with the leading Christian theocratic think tank, the Chalcedon Foundation. Businessman Rob Hurtt served several terms as a Republican member of the state Senate and for a time served as Majority Leader.  

Back to the Future

Areview of the web of increasingly influential conservative state-level think tanks points to a pattern of ideological compatibility, organizational coordination, and fluid sharing of staff. The trends also suggest increasing efforts to generate congruence among the think tanks themselves and in their public policy direction. This undoubtedly reflects an even stronger alliance, not simply between the two networks discussed here, but between the business and religious sectors of the Republican Party. James Leininger, founder and primary funder of the SPN’s Texas Public Policy Foundation, which does not hold a dual membership in the FOF network, nevertheless epitomizes that trend. TPPF’s research studies emphasize privatization in public education and environmental policy, and it has been a leader in the area of tort reform. Leininger controls or influences several political action committees and public interest groups as well as the influential CEO America, an offshoot of the Leiningercontrolled Texas Public Policy Foundation. CEO America is a leading advocate of public school vouchers, and a financier of “private” vouchers, bankrolled by wealthy Republican businessmen.

In 1994, 1996 and 1998, Leininger apparently hoped to accelerate school privatization in Texas by backing Christian Right candidates for Texas’s State Board of Education against establishment Republicans allied with Gov. George W. Bush. The Texas Observer reports he has also contributed more than $2 million over the years to such national Christian Right agencies as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family. He is a member of a conservative splinter denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one of whose founders and leaders is televangelist D. James Kennedy. Leininger also has contributed significantly to antiabortion, anti-gay, anti-public education and anti-labor campaigns and organizations. He was the single largest contributor ($500,000) to the successful 1998 campaign of Rick Perry for Texas Lieutenant Governor. Perry will become governor if George Bush is elected President. Underscoring the growing significance of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and its powerful backer, every statewide elected official including Gov. Bush turned out for the TPPF’s 10th anniversary, $250 a plate fundraising dinner in 1998.

The infrastructure of conservative statelevel think tanks now draws on some 15 years of experience. Its leaders, researchers and advocates move in and out of government, among think tanks, and between national and state-level organizations. As the trend toward devolution of policy-making from the federal government to the states continues, accompanied by an increasing interest in various forms of privatization, the organizational, intellectual, financial, and policy-making strength of these organizations will further the interests and influence of the conservative movement.

What’s more, the policy changes promoted so effectively by the state-level think tanks are often more extreme than anything possible at the national level. There are several reasons for this. First, state legislatures are often more conservative than Congress. They often reflect more local norms, which may derive from concentrations of conservative Christian activism, racial prejudices, or area business, industry, or corporate interests. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the segregationists of the South invoked the notion of “states’ rights” to defend segregation, they were appealing to state-level support for segregation that was being challenged by federal civil rights legislation.

As the trend toward devolution of  policy-making from the federal government  to the states continues, accompanied by an increasing interest in various forms of privatization, the organizational, intellectual, financial, and policy-making strength of these organizations will further the interests and influence of the conservative movement.

Second, the Right often develops its policies and programs by trial-and-error testing in the states. Beginning with his election in 1987, Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson relied heavily on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute as he pioneered the attack on welfare that was to spread to other states and eventually become federal welfare “reform.” Rightist legislation and ballot initiatives in the states often serve as a “proving ground” or “demonstration project” for an idea that is not yet broadly accepted nationally. Anti-affirmative action programs incubated in California and Texas, for example, are on the way to becoming national policy.

It can be difficult, time consuming, and expensive to deflect such state level political efforts, especially when both the governor and the legislature are conservative. Opponents of right-wing initiatives often find themselves on the defensive, as well as out-spent and out-staffed by the right’s network of state-level think tanks and the local chapters of national mass-based organizations— all of which are the natural outgrowths of long-term strategic planning and funding by rightist leaders.

What might be called a “quiet revolution” is well underway, flying under the radar of national organizations of the political center and left, and avoiding the national spotlight. Reporters and researchers tend to see only the numerous issue- or constituency-specific activities of the Right. Even then, the most conscientious journalists and public policy groups have trouble keeping track of, for example, all the anti-gay and anti-abortion initiatives and bills being mounted at the state level.

While the Right has not abandoned the national stage, over the past ten years it has developed significant platforms for public policy and political initiatives in the states—from which it has launched a long-term program for political and governmental change.