By Fredreka Schouten
WASHINGTON — Two major Democratic donors, the husband-and-wife team of Steve Phillips and Susan Sandler, this week will unveil a new data and political analysis clearinghouse to help other wealthy Democrats figure out how to get the most bang for the millions of dollars they will plow into next year’s midterm elections.
The Sandler Phillips Center is akin to a “financial advisory" firm for politics, Phillips said, that will dig into voting patterns and demographic data and vet on-the-ground activists to help guide investments of liberal political money to federal and state races where it can make a difference.
It also is conducting post-election autopsies to help the party, and its donors, learn from their missteps.
In the 2016 races, Democrats spent “hundreds of millions of dollars … to disastrous results,” Phillips said Wednesday in an interview with USA TODAY. “It’s sort of surprising how little quality information there is that donors get and ask for before cutting big checks."
A key goal of the new operation: Driving turnout among the coalition of voters — minorities, young people and college-educated whites — that twice elected President Barack Obama to help flip control of Congress to Democrats next year and seize governors’ mansions.
In a report making recommendations for 2018, they are calling for early investments in voter mobilization.
Phillips said his team already deployed their research in Alabama where they convened a conference call that connected roughly 40 Democratic donors with several local groups working to drive black voter turnout ahead of Tuesday's special election. In a two-week period, the team helped direct about $500,000 from those out-of-state donors to the groups working in Alabama, he said.
Exit polls show black turnout surged on Tuesday, and 96% of African-American voters in Alabama backed the winner, Democrat Doug Jones.
Voter data from other key races in 2017 reveal an "enthusiasm gap" between the parties with Democrats who voted in 2016 turning up at higher rates than Republicans in this year's contests, Phillips said.
"If that replicates itself, we can take back the Congress," Phillips said.
Democrats must flip 24 House seats to win that chamber. They also face a daunting Senate map with 10 Democratic incumbents on the ballot in states that Trump won.
In 2018, the center plans to target several Senate races — Arizona, Nevada and Texas — and between 47 and 66 House districts in its efforts to win the majority in Congress.
It also wants to help Democrats oust Republican governors in blue states, such as Illinois and Maryland. In addition, the couple has launched a Georgia-specific political operation with plans to spend between $10 million and $15 million to help elect Democrat Stacey Abrams as the nation’s first female black governor and the state's first black chief executive.
The new center — and its recommendations for the 2018 elections — will be unveiled Thursday to donors in the Democracy Alliance, an influential coalition of the Democratic Party’s biggest givers. Its founders include billionaire financier George Soros.
Phillips and Sandler, San Francisco-area philanthropists, have been big players in Democratic politics for years. Sandler sits on the alliance’s board. Her parents' savings-and-loans fortune has helped bankroll Democratic candidates and causes, including the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank in Washington.
Phillips, a lawyer and author, deployed his own political group, PowerPAC, to mobilize voters to back Obama in his successful 2008 battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. The group also conducted voter turnout efforts to aid Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.