Progressive state legislators are trying to counter President Donald Trump — by taking a page out of the conservative playbook.
A group called the State Innovation Exchange (SIX) is raising its profile to lead efforts in Statehouses around the country, supporting lawmakers in advancing progressive policies and beating back Trump-influenced agendas locally.
Formed in late 2014 after the merger of three smaller groups, SIX fashions itself as the liberal antidote to the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a well-funded conservative machine for Republican state-level legislation.
SIX's goal is to become a policy shop of sorts for progressive state lawmakers looking for proposals and solutions on issues like climate change, paid parental leave, criminal justice reform and the minimum wage — but its members are sharply divided on which issues to purse and and whether a liberal agenda, focused on social concerns, can fly in moderate states. Those differences spilled into view at the group's recent annual conference.
"Our theory of change is focused on building power at the state level,” said Nick Rathod, SIX’s executive director and a former staffer in the Obama White House who worked as the president’s liaison to the states. "That means focusing on state legislation and policy, and permanent infrastructure in the states that can allow us to help align a proactive agenda."
SIX is one of several groups within the core portfolio of the Democracy Alliance, a donor network that helps route funding to progressive causes. Its benefactors include George Soros and Tom Steyer.
With a budget of $5 million last year, however, SIX is operating with about half the funding of ALEC, a 44-year-old policy behemoth frequently credited with writing GOP-backed bills for Republican state legislators. ALEC, which has received money from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Pfizer, has long been cited as one of the most prominent vehicles for big industry to get involved with writing state Republican-sponsored legislation.
It has also been roundly criticized for behaving like a lobbying firm, even though it's incorporated as a non-profit. In recent years, ALEX has attracted further controversy as it's grown increasingly involved in engineering non-business-related GOP-supported bills, like Florida's so-called "Stand Your Ground" law. ALEC's involvement in helping advance that bill was a watershed moment for critics of the group following the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, whose assailant, George Zimmerman, cited the law in firing at the unarmed 17-year-old.
SIX's most prominent obstacle in counteracting ALEC's influence, however, may not be the conservative group's power, the Trump presidency or historic Democratic deficits in Statehouses. Rather, the biggest challenge facing SIX could be its own members.
Nearly a year after the 2016 Democratic presidential primary exposed a rift between centrists and progressives, the party remains divided. And SIX continues to push policies that many of its members in the heartland and in the south say are untenable in their states.
At the group's recent annual conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, lawmakers from places like New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Arkansas bickered openly with those pitching policies that have had success in California and New York. Tensions also emerged between state representatives from rural districts and urban areas, as well as between legislators wanting to talk mostly about social and environmental issues and others focused primarily on economic concerns.
"I don’t see how we can make progress if every single issue brought up drives a wedge between people," Patricia Higgins, a state representative from a largely rural district in New Hampshire, told NBC News.
"Sometimes it feels like we are still just talking to ourselves," added Higgins, who drew attention at the conference after she indicated during a question-and-answer session that certain progressive policy goals might not be popular in her district.
That message was put bluntly by California state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district stretches along the northern coastline of the state.
"If we do not become America’s party, and not the perceived party of coastal elites in urban centers, we will continue to lose," McGuire said.
Pressing questions also emerged at the conference from state lawmakers concerned that the party, on both the state and federal levels, was not adequately focused on economic issues.
"There could have, and probably should have, been a much larger emphasis on job creation," said New Mexico Rep. Bill McCamley. "We didn’t really see that as one of the main issues (at the conference) and that’s really one of the biggest things a lot of us face."
He added, "There was a large focus on racial inequality and early childhood education, and, yes, definitely, these are critical, and especially now. But let’s talk more about job creation, workforce training — things that will get our young people more and better jobs."
Rathod, SIX’s chief, admitted "the divide is real" when it comes to his group — and the Democratic party at large.
He said one of his most important goals in the immediate future was "taking a look where we can bridge the gap but still align ourselves with core values that are progressive." Rathod insisted that progressive policies are tenable in all 50 states.
Democrats on the state level "shouldn’t be shy at laying that progressive vision out," he said. "But maybe it’s a more gradual approach in the redder and more purple states."
In the meantime, Rathod said he sees his group as one of many growing, and increasingly necessary, checks on the Trump administration.
"We have an actively hostile White House and federal government and Congress who are pushing a lot of things to the states," he said. "We need to be prepared."