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u.s. politics: inside the right-wing revolution

A little less than a year ago, Caleb Rowden, a Christian conservative and newly-elected Republican member of Missouri's state legislature, introduced his first bill, a sharply-worded resolution calling on the White House to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

It seemed to have come out of nowhere. Mr. Rowden had campaigned against gun control and access to abortion. Energy issues didn't figure in his public platform at all. But after he introduced his resolution, Republicans in Mississippi, Michigan and Minnesota quickly followed suit, introducing almost identically worded bills in their state legislatures. Over the next few months, lawmakers in two more states, Indiana and Washington, would submit carbon-copy legislation.

The bills, though introduced in different states, all appear to have drawn their inspiration from the same source: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a network of Republican lawmakers and big business that has been quietly effective in pushing its conservative agenda in states across the country. In the case of Keystone, few, if any, of the ALEC-inspired resolutions have passed. But the group is confident its strategy will create sufficient pressure on the Obama administration in favour of the pipeline.

"We can't, for the life of us, understand why we shouldn't take this oil from our friends in Canada that are offering it to us at a pretty decent price," said John Piscopo, a Republican state representative in Connecticut and outgoing national chairman of ALEC. "So we're going state by state to alleviate any concerns. That's the beauty of ALEC – a lot of the battles that really matter in America are happening in the states."

ALEC, supported by dues-paying corporations and politicians, produces what it calls "model" bills to advance its conservative goals of "limited government" and "free markets." But they have also served as templates for Republican-sponsored laws that have skewed states to the right on social issues such as gun control, abortion and climate change.

This year, ALEC will also concentrate its collective clout on fighting federal regulations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and state moves to expand wind and solar power. It is also taking aim at the federal health insurance program, known as Obamacare, with draft state legislation to strip insurance companies of their state licences if they conduct new business on federal exchanges.

"We're trying to get the exact same laws at the exact same time. The same language, the same talking points, the same arguments," Ron Johnson, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, told ALEC lawmakers over a meat-and-potatoes lunch in the basement ballroom of the hotel where their summit was held.

The orchestrated push for Keystone is one of the newer priorities to emerge out of its latest policy summit in Washington last week, although ALEC had organized two visits for select lawmakers to Alberta's oil sands earlier this year. TransCanada Pipelines joined ALEC in 2011 as a private-sector member, which would give it input on the text of any ALEC draft bills concerning Keystone. ALEC does not disclose how much individual company members pay, but its website says the annual dues range as high as $25,000 .

ALEC has been a potent political player for decades – according to internal documents published by liberal lobby groups two years ago, states enacted 115 of 826 bills based on ALEC models in 2009 – but has made some costly missteps lately. Its agenda, and its courting of high-profile Tea Party politicians, has put it at odds with more moderate Republicans. Last year, one-fourth of its 2,000 legislator-members quit, as did some 60 of its 200 member corporations. They included Amazon, Coca-Cola, General Electric and Wal-Mart. Environmental groups have called on Facebook, Google and Yelp to leave.

Membership also took a dive after an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in Florida in 2012, ALEC leaders acknowledge. The case drew attention to the state's "Stand Your Ground" law, cited in the white shooter's claim of self-defence. The controversy was linked to ALEC which, in partnership with the National Rifle Association, had used Florida's law as a basis for its own template legislation that was subsequently introduced in other states.

ALEC officials say the NRA is no longer a member, and their focus now is on "fiscal policy." They deny that far-right voices will inevitably drive its agenda as more centrist politicians pull away. "I don't think people have stepped away from the idea of limited government, free markets and federalism," said Linda Upmeyer, the group's chairwoman and the Republican House majority leader in Iowa. "They've just been scared away by all the noise."

"Folks will come back to ALEC because, let's face it," she added. "It works."