Left unchecked, the influx of “conservative dark money” into state legislative races and partisan redistricting poses a critical threat to the Democratic Party’s future, according to an analysis released Thursday by Democratic super PAC Forward Majority.
The analysis, “Outspent,” does not provide new data on the impact of both party-led and outside spending on the makeup of state legislatures and the congressional districting process they control. Instead, drawing on the findings of a 2012 ProPublica report, it highlights some of the strongest evidence of the phenomenon in the hopes of galvanizing Democratic donors and activists.
Focusing on the pivotal 2010 elections, when Democratic losses allowed the GOP to redraw congressional districts, the report identifies a 3-to-1 Republican spending advantage that year between the respective political nonprofits erected by the two parties. It also notes the rise of the billionaire Koch brothers’ political group Americans for Prosperity, which invested in state legislative races in 2010 in an unprecedented fashion with six-figure radio ad buys for individual candidates.
“The report highlights the urgency of the moment less than six weeks before Virginia voters head to the polls,” Ben Wexler-Waite, a spokesman for Forward Majority, said in a statement. “For too long, Democrats have allowed the Koch Brothers and their vast network of conservative dark money groups to go unanswered in state legislative elections.”
An item that is likely to be of particular interest to Democrats is the key role played in the transformation of state legislatures by Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia. As chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2010, Gillespie spearheaded the creation of the Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP, an offshoot of the RSLC, aimed at winning state legislative seats and shaping the subsequent redistricting process. REDMAP raised $30 million in 2010. The same year, the RSLC’s Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised just $10 million to influence redistricting.
Barack Obama campaign veteran David Cohen launched Forward Majority earlier this month with the goal of providing the kind of outside support in state legislative races that the Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC already provide Democrats in U.S. Senate and House races. The group plans to begin its efforts with a $1 million investment in Virginia House of Delegates races, and it will ramp up its investment to $100 million in 12 states over the next four years. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), and Democratic Reps. Joseph Kennedy and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, serve as the organization’s honorary co-chairs.
This November, only Virginia and New Jersey hold statewide elections for their lower legislative body. Since Democrats have a comfortable majority in New Jersey’s general assembly, the party has focused its efforts on picking up seats in Virginia.
“Forward Majority is fighting back and our work is starting right now in Virginia,” Wexler-Waite said.
The super PAC has not yet announced the form of support it plans to provide and which races it plans to get involved in.
The chances of Democrats gaining control of the Virginia House of Delegates are slim; Republicans enjoy a 66-34 majority that Democrats blame on partisan gerrymandering.
Still, the party sees a major opportunity to erode Republicans’ lead, given Hillary Clinton’s victory over Donald Trump in 17 legislative districts. In the unlikely event that Democrats can flip all 17 of those seats, they would gain control of the lower chamber.
Forward Majority is one of several new Democratic groups that have cropped up to focus on the less sexy arena of state-level electoral politics. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a new group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder with the backing of former President Obama, raised $10.8 million as of the end of July to elect Democratic state legislators and governors. It is focusing its first efforts on electing Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) as governor of Virginia.
And after losing in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, former Rep. Tom Perriello founded the Win Virginia PAC to bolster Democratic candidates for the state House of Delegates.
The surge of Democratic interest and investment in state-level races is an attempt to reverse the party’s devastating loss of governorships and state legislatures. Since 2009, Democrats have lost roughly 1,000 state legislative seats and 27 state chambers. The losses, which included 675 seats in 2010 alone, allowed Republicans to redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new census data, laying the groundwork for lasting Republican control of state governments and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans have also used their political majorities at the state level to at once undo key Democratic priorities and undermine the party’s political infrastructure, through anti-union right-to-work laws and voter identification requirements.
The renewed Democratic attention on the states has started bearing fruit in special elections for open state legislature seats. With two more wins on Tuesday in Florida and New Hampshire, the Democratic Party has already flipped eight GOP-controlled seats this election cycle.