(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)

OK, so Ronald Reagan isn’t around to actually endorse anyone. But that doesn’t stop political operatives from invoking his presidency to boost their candidate. A new, liberal Colorado-based group called Progressive Future is bringing back the Gipper to put in a plug for Obama, while the conservative Let Freedom Ring calls Obama the “anti-Reagan.”

Progressive Future’s ad, airing in Florida and Ohio, starts off with footage of Reagan delivering his powerful rhetorical question of the 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” (One of the strategists who came up with the line later modestly called it “probably the most devastating line Mr. Reagan used against Mr. Carter.” The strategist was writing a column hoping that John Kerry wouldn’t use it with success against President Bush.)

The ad continues with Reagan’s speech, set against images of Dick Cheney, Osama bin Laden, rising gas prices, a home foreclosure, and, crucially, Bush together with John McCain. Reagan says, “If you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.” And just as he mentions “another choice,” there is Obama set against a giant American flag, gazing off into the distance at those Reagan Democrats he needs on Tuesday.

Obama himself played off the line last week at a Florida rally, saying, “At this rate, the question isn’t just ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’, it’s ‘Are you better off than you were four weeks ago?’ ”

But Obama isn’t running against an incumbent, as Reagan was. McCain aired his own ad saying, “We’re worse off than we were four years ago,” distancing himself from Bush’s legacy.

Let Freedom Ring — as part of an endless stream of new ads, some on TV and some Web-only — tries to cast some of Reagan’s glow on McCain instead of Obama. This new video calls Obama the “anti-Reagan” and says to McCain, “Your economic policies are the policies of Ronald Reagan.”

We already dug up the background on Let Freedom Ring. Now let’s take a look at Progressive Future and its dizzying array of affiliated groups.

Progressive Future is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded last year at the urging of Doug Phelps, chair of US PIRG and its umbrella organization, the Public Interest Network. US PIRG is itself an umbrella for state-level public interest research groups that got started by Ralph Nader decades ago.

Progressive Future is also part of the Public Interest Network, along with Green Corps and Environment America, which is busy campaigning for Obama and Democratic Senate candidates like Al Franken in Minnesota and Mark Udall in Colorado. (Environment America is — hold on to your hat — itself an umbrella of state-based groups.)

OK, zoom back in to Progressive Future. It was formed to foment a grassroots activist base on issues like universal health care, alternative energy and an end to the war in Iraq, says program director Adam Lioz. “The right had been out-organizing the progressive side” and it was time for that to change, said Lioz, who came from US PIRG.

This long-term grassroots approach is a hot strategy among liberals. In a story on independent groups that aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today, organizer Tom Matzzie called it one of the success stories of the 2008 election cycle.

Progressive Future’s board of directors includes Pete Maysmith, who used to be at Common Cause; Mo Kirk, who works for the Public Interest Network and used to be at Oregon State PIRG; and Naomi Roth of Work for Progress.

The group is now active in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Lioz. Earlier this year, it joined with yet another network of liberal groups, called Progress Now (which we profiled here) to form Progress Florida.

Which brings us to this blog’s humble plea to liberal groups. Please — please — can you just form one network and stick with that one? It would be a lot less confusing. Please?

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.