In the course of our reporting on election grants doled out to various governments in the runup to the 2020 election, one nugget we ran across has continued to stick in the back of our minds: Project Keystone.
Project Keystone is a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization whose mission is to make “research on legislative preferences and voter trends of Pennsylvania citizens more readily available.”
That sentence is incomplete. It should say “…more readily available to Democrats,” because in the simplest terms, Project Keystone is a polling consortium by Democrats, for Democrats.
It’s perfectly legal, perfectly ethical, and the only problem with Project Keystone is…Republicans don’t have a counterpart.
No matter how much technology might change politics, the core mission of winning elections cannot be done without some kind of understanding of public opinion, believe it or not. Project Keystone solves that for Democrats, and Republicans are left guessing.
It should be clarified that the project is not run by the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania. It truly is a consortium of various entities on the political left: labor unions, state party campaigns like the House Democratic Campaign committee, and (naturally) individual campaigns themselves.
For example, the Pennsylvania campaign finance reporting website shows that in 2023, AFSCME donated $40,000 to Project Keystone over the course of the year, and the Pennsylvania State Education Association political PAC chipped in the same amount. Those are just the checks coming from the PACs of those organizations. Once we see the unions’ federally required disclosures for this year, there will likely have been thousands more in direct donations from union coffers.
Supreme Court candidate Daniel McCaffery in September also cut a $40,000 check to Project Keystone. Roughly two months later, McCaffery would later coast to a 53-47 win over Republican Carolyn Carluccio.
Do you think any of that $40,000 worth of polling told McCaffery he should run on abortion?
Given PSEA’s high level of involvement through its six-figure investments in the project, can there be much doubt that the Democrats who swept the Central Bucks School District races were likely armed with well researched data on messaging?
Project Keystone’s tax return from 2022 shows it took in $1.1 million that year. But key to making this work is that Project Keystone is durable, and will be there cycle after cycle. It’s asinine to expect individual campaigns to learn polling basics on their own in a single year, and to fund their own polling operations on a campaign-by-campaign basis. Democrats in Pennsylvania know they only need to invent this wheel one time, and then let it roll — infrastructure!
All of this is to show that Republicans have yet to learn the lessons of “The Blueprint,” a book explaining in granular detail how four multimillionaires in Colorado decided to go around the party, taking matters into their own hands to turn then-red Colorado to blue in the early aughts.
Key to understanding The Blueprint is understanding that campaign finance reform was already draining power from political parties.
As one of those Colorado multimillionaires would put it, campaign finance reform “basically guaranteed that the party itself, Republican or Democrat, could not possibly be the main entity that…ran campaigns. The biggest thing is it took parties out of the mix as a money entity.”
Because Pennsylvania does not have campaign finance limits on donations, it’s still technically possible for parties to somewhat capably pull off a project like this, but it’s naive to think it’s likely.
As for Pennsylvania politics, the consortium nature of Project Keystone shows Democrats get it and Republicans don’t.
If right-of-center minded people want to win in the commonwealth, it will be crucial for donors to join hands and cooperate on ventures that will stretch out well beyond a single campaign cycle. Besides investing in public polling, such a venture would also invest in media training for Republican candidates and incumbents, data harvesting, legal nonprofits to litigate on important issues, fund news alternatives to the Inquirer, and more.
That’s more or less what longtime D.C. reporter Fred Barnes wrote about all the way back in 2008.
“Eric O’Keefe, chairman of the conservative Sam Adams Alliance in Chicago, says there are seven ‘capacities’ that are required to drive a successful political strategy and keep it on offense,” Barnes wrote.
Those capacities are “the capacity to generate intellectual ammunition, to pursue investigations, to mobilize for elections, to fight media bias, to pursue strategic litigation, to train new leaders, and to sustain a presence in the new media,” Barnes added. “Colorado liberals have now created institutions that possess all seven capacities.”
To make it all work, donors won’t just have to pool their money, they’ll have to cooperate, always easier said than done. But it can be done. Just ask the multi-millionaire donor we quoted above, Jared Polis: he’s now the governor of Colorado.