Of all election outcomes, state legislative races are the likeliest to have a direct impact on the lives of voters. But you wouldn’t know it from the national press. The morning after the 2010 elections, Americans woke up to headlines about a Republican landslide; most of those stories focused on Congress, where a new GOP House majority promised to fight President Barack Obama tooth and nail. What didn’t make so many front pages were Republicans’ historic victories at the state level, as the party wrested control of 21 house and senate chambers from the Democrats. North Carolina had its first Republican senate since 1870; Alabama hadn’t seen a Republican legislature since Reconstruction. Twenty states now had Republicans in charge of the senate, the house, and the governor’s office concurrently.
While Republican members of Congress were focused on blocking the Democratic agenda, Republican state lawmakers began to drive the national policy debate. They wasted no time slashing social programs, weakening women’s reproductive rights and collective bargaining, and creating new barriers to voting rights. Taking their cues—and often the wording of their bills—from right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Republicans in the so-called laboratories of democracy began adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to issues from health care to labor to immigration.
Even if the media hasn’t figured out how much state races matter, it’s old news to conservative fundraisers. The sea change of 2010 didn’t happen by accident or Tea Party enthusiasm alone. The election served as an experiment in what big money can do in low-budget state races. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) invested around $30 million to bolster state GOP efforts around the country. The committee’s chair, Ed Gillespie, is a well-known GOP operative who is advising Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and the committee often contracts with Karl Rove’s consulting and media groups. The committee registers with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 group, which means it can take unlimited donations from both individuals and corporations. Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have written six-figure checks.
The committee invested heavily in Michigan, where the GOP won 20 seats in the state house, putting them in control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. In New York, the $1.4 million spent on state senate races produced a Republican majority. Dollars go further in these races; $250,000 won’t win or lose a U.S. Senate race, or even a congressional campaign, but in a state assembly or senate election it can overwhelm the opposition. The committee’s timing in 2010 was impeccable. Its high-end mailers and attack ads were concentrated in the last month of the campaign, leaving the Democrats little time to respond.
In Maine, things crossed the legal line. As The Progressive reported, the RSLC swooped into the state and dropped $400,000 on ads targeting five Democratic senate candidates, quadrupling what the Republican campaigns had spent. Some of the ads were patently false, but the Democrats had almost no ability to counter them, and all five lost. Normally, under Maine’s election laws, the Democrats would have received matching funds to reply to the ads, but the RSLC did not file its expenditure reports on time. The group was later hit with the biggest fine in state history—$26,000, money the committee was no doubt happy to pay since the attacks had put the GOP in charge.
The blue version of the RSLC, known as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, was outspent nearly three to one in 2010. Democratic candidates are also funded by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which spent nearly $47 million supporting pro-labor candidates in 2010. However, AFSCME supports candidates at all levels. Further widening the gap between Democrats and Republicans, the Republican State Leadership Committee isn’t alone in backing candidates on the state level; there’s also the Republican Governors Association, which plays a similar role in getting governors elected and spent a whopping $131 million in 2010, dwarfing the Democratic Governors Association’s $65 million.
The Republican groups, with their deep-pocketed backers, are aiming for a repeat performance in 2012. But they’ll have to defend the gains they made two years ago, and playing defense in independent-minded states like Maine is always harder. This time, they won’t catch Democrats unaware, although they’ll certainly outspend them.
The outcomes will have enormous implications. States’ refusal to expand Medicaid could derail Obama’s health-care plan. Anti-immigration laws will continue to proliferate in the states while Congress hems and haws about comprehensive reform. Republican lawmakers will continue to push for charter schools and private-school vouchers at the cost of traditional public education. Fights over civil-rights issues like gay marriage and voting rights, not to mention women’s rights, will play out almost entirely in the halls of state capitols.
Congressional races may be irresistible shiny objects for the media, but these are the races to pay attention to. You just might have to do a little digging to read about them.