Why The GOP Is Winning The Statehouse War
While the federal government is divided and gridlocked, some states have become political monopolies where one party controls both the state legislature and the governor's office.
The New York Times' Nicholas Confessore says relaxed restrictions on political donations in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision are helping special interest groups influence elections to create single-party states. In Confessore's latest article, he shows how campaign strategists have become increasingly creative in raising large contributions from all over the country and funneling that money to local races, often concealing the names of contributors.
Confessore has been reporting on money and politics for The New York Times for several years. Before covering campaign finance, he wrote about state politics and government and shared in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
Confessore tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about the origins of the one-party-rule trend and how both sides are making it work.
On state races presenting a better return on investment
Look to Washington and you'll see that there's not much happening there. It is ceaseless trench warfare where neither party has an advantage and there's lots of money and lots of special interests trying to dig in.
What's different at the state level is that cash can go further if you're a donor or a special interest. You can put some money into the states and see huge return in the partisan tilt of the government and, therefore, in the policies it pursues. So the return on investment is really quite good. There's more of a chance to have a one-party situation in the state capitols, where both houses — the Assembly and the state Senate — and the governor's office are all controlled by the same party. Once you have that, it's amazing what a Democratic Party or a GOP in a state can accomplish on policy.
On Republicans' success at winning one-party control of statehouses
As of 2012, there are 36 states that are under sole-party control, and there are a lot more states under Republican control than under control of the Democrats. And the reason for that is just the extraordinary success and strategic planning of conservative donors and Republican strategists in 2010.
They saw what was coming. They saw the voter backlash against President Obama, against government spending; they raised tons of money and rode that wave, and they vastly expanded the sphere of Republican control, if you will, in state government.
On the group that engineered the one-party-rule strategy
[The Republican State Leadership Committee] focus[es] simply on state lawmakers and attorneys general and judges. That was their niche. It's kind of under the radar because, in Washington, there's not that much attention paid to state governments at that level. And what happened in the last couple of years was this group had been around for a while and they approached a very senior Republican, Ed Gillespie, and they said, "Look, with you on board and you as our rainmaker and chairman, we can really raise our game for 2010 and beyond."
So what they did was they raised a huge amount of money — $30 million in 2010, which is a lot for state politics. What they can do is, if you are a state party chairman in Iowa or Alabama or Louisiana, you are not necessarily going to have access to the best pollsters [or] the biggest donors around the country in what we call "the money centers" — in Texas and Florida and Southern California and New York. So what a group like this does is — it has access to those people, it has a national perspective, it has better polling and research than some of the state parties and state leaders — and what it can do is provide all of that as kind of a central funnel of money and expertise [and] then [make] it available to the state operations, state by state. It's very effective.
On out-of-state efforts by Democrats to pass gay-rights state legislation
So Minnesota is a state where ... there's a $500 limit on contributions to candidates, and it is kind of limiting because you can't just hand them a check for $20,000 or half a million, for that matter, and it's hard to get money to them.
So in 2012, a group called the Gill Action Fund, which focuses on gay rights, decided ... [it] needed to get involved. There was an amendment on the ballot that year that would outlaw gay marriage and there was a Republican majority in both houses of [the] Legislature. [The Gill Action Fund believed it] could do two things. First, they believed they could work in partnership with some other gay-rights groups to beat back the amendment; but second, if they could flip [the] Legislature over to the Democrats, they could stop it from happening again and perhaps pass approval of gay marriage and counterattack.
What they are is essentially a network of a few hundred gay-rights donors around the country and they work on a model where they do a couple of different things. First they'll raise large checks and put them into superPACs and parties where necessary, but they will also raise lots and lots of money for candidates by directing their donors to a website called OutGiving. And they will say, "Here are the candidates who we are backing. Here are the people who we are trying to defeat who are enemies of gay rights." And each of those donors can pick from a menu, basically, and send checks to as many of those candidates as they would like.
Here's the effect of that: Instead of a group raising a lot of money from a bunch of people and then cutting one large check to a candidate, which it can't do in Minnesota, they cut out the middle man. They have 200 donors; each give a smaller, median-sized check to half a dozen candidates. It's a money bomb. So all of a sudden, you had a couple of candidates who were getting thousands of dollars from these donors they had never met in Los Angeles and New York and the Hudson Valley of New York [and] in San Francisco. These were all gay donors and the money was coming to them without ever being asked for.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Since restrictions on political donations were relaxed by the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and other cases, campaign strategists have become increasingly creative in raising large contributions and directing them at targeted races, often concealing the names of contributors. Our guest, Nick Confessore, has been reporting on money and politics for several years for the New York Times.
He recently reported on a trend among national fundraisers and strategists directing contributions to state and local races with the goal of capturing control of a target's state legislature and governor's seat, effectively achieving one-party control of the state house. Confessore's piece in the Sunday Times, part of a series with other reporters called "One Party Rule," documents the success of the strategy and gives telling examples of how the process works.
Before covering campaign finance, Nick Confessore wrote about state politics and government and shared in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the downfall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Confessore spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Nick Confessore, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why are big donors and national political leaders focusing relatively more now on state races than national ones?
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: It's fairly simple, Dave. You know, look to Washington, and you'll see that there is not much happening there. It is ceaseless trench warfare where neither party has an advantage, and there is lots of money and lots of special interests trying to dig in. What's different at the state level is that, you know, cash can go further if you're a donor or a special interest.
You can put this money into the states and see a huge return in the partisan tilt of the government and therefore in the policies it pursues. So the return on investment is really quite good, and there's more of a chance to have a one-party situation in these state capitals, where both houses, you know, the assembly and the state Senate and the governor's office, are all controlled by the same party.
And once you have that, it's amazing what a Democratic Party or a GOP in a state can accomplish on policy.
DAVIES: OK, now on the big scoreboard, what have we seen in terms of this trend toward one-party control?
CONFESSORE: So as of 2012, there are 36 states that are under sole-party control, and there are a lot more states under Republican control than under control of the Democrats. And the reason for that is just the extraordinary success of - and strategic planning of conservative donors and Republican strategists in 2010. They saw what was coming. They saw the voter backlash against President Obama, against government spending. They raised tons of money and rode that wave, and they vastly expanded the sphere of Republican control, if you will, in state government.
And kind of all of a sudden, you know, even in swing states like North Carolina, you would see legislature that had Republican control since the first time since Reconstruction. You saw these amazing shifts. In Alabama, the same thing. We had these Democrat majorities that had kind of sat there for years and years, and finally with one good push they were sent off into the abyss probably for a long time.
DAVIES: Now you write about one organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee, that has become a powerful force, in part because of the work of Ed Gillespie, who is a veteran Republican consultant. Tell us about the RSLC.
CONFESSORE: This is a group that, you know, used to be a part of the Republican National Committee. And they spun off as their own group about eight years ago, 10 years ago, and they focused simply on state lawmakers and attorneys general and judges. I mean, you know, and that was their niche.
And, you know, it's kind of under the radar because, you know, in Washington there is not that much attention paid to state governments at that level. And what happened in the last couple of years was this group, you know, had been around for a while, and they approached a very senior Republican, Ed Gillespie, and they said look, you know, with you onboard and you as our rainmaker and chairman, we can really raise our game for 2010 and beyond.
And so what they did was they raised a huge amount of money, $30 million, in 2010, which is a lot for state politics. And what they can do is - you know, if you are a state party chairman in Iowa or Alabama or Louisiana, you are not necessarily going to have access, you know, to the best pollsters, you know, the biggest donors around the country in what we call the money centers in, you know, Texas and Florida and Southern California and New York.
And so what a group like this does is it has access to those people. It has a national perspective. It has better polling and research than some of the state parties and state leaders. And what it can do is just provide all of that as kind of a central funnel of money and expertise that then, you know, makes it available to the state operations state by state.
And it's very effective, but they've had an incredible run over the last four years.
DAVIES: Right. And I assume they're not just giving money to, you know, any Republican who needs it. They take a strategic look at particular local races that will have an effect on transforming power in a given state, right?
CONFESSORE: That's correct. This is a group that's looking strictly at performance. They are not, you know, coming into a state to execute on old grudges between, you know, this state committeeman and that state committeewoman. They are purely focused on success, on racking up wins and especially on flipping. They look at states where, you know, in a state trend like demographics and voter registration and economic transformation, provide opportunities to really shift a majority to a minority and a minority to a majority.
You know, and they try to build over several years. What they do is they go look at a state, and they say you know what? With $2 million in this state, we could turn this state Republican, and within four years we can make it, you know, kind of a supermajority, right. And once you have a supermajority in the House and the state Senate in some states, and, you know, a Republican governor, you can really do anything you want as far as policy goes.
DAVIES: And a supermajority is where you have not just a majority say in the state Senate but a big majority because that might be needed to approve certain judicial or other nominees.
CONFESSORE: That's correct.
DAVIES: Now let's look at a particular case, Alabama, a state with a lot of conservative voters but one which Democrats had held majorities in the legislature I guess all the way back to Reconstruction. You write about a state representative, Mike Hubbard, who had a plan, a Republican, for capturing control, but he needed money. What happened?
CONFESSORE: Well, this guy Mike Hubbard was the party chair for several years before 2010. And he had been in touch, he had been in training sessions in Washington and Tennessee, and he had met Republican leaders, and he had decided he was going to rebuild Alabama GOP from the ground up.
You know, you think in some of these states there just aren't strong party organizations, especially in states where one party has been out of power for a long time. And although we think of Alabama as a very conservative state, you know, for 100 years or more, Democrats, conservative Democrats of course, but Democrats had run the show in the legislature.
And what he did is he went around and said look, I have a plan, I have candidates, I have turnout targets, I have polling. I know how to run a political operation. I'm going to run it all out of the state party. What I need is more money. And the reason for that is Alabama has a $500 limit on corporate contributions.
Corporations are a natural ally for us in this fight, but they can't give as much as we would like them to. And there are other donors who are afraid to give to us because they fear retribution from the Democrats if this fails. So Mike Hubbard went around, and he solicited money from the Republicans in Florida, from the Ohio state party. This is a quarter-million dollars for each of those parties.
He went to Texas and talked to Bob Perry, the Texas homebuilder who is one of the biggest GOP fundraisers and donors anywhere in the country. And the final piece of the puzzle was he went to this Republican group in Washington, which raises money from all around the country, and he said look, I need your help. With your help, I can turn Alabama red.
And what they did was they set up an affiliate in Alabama, a state PAC, and they went to all these out-of-state corporate donors - Google, Exxon, Facebook, eBay - and they raised money from those companies and had them put it in this Alabama PAC.
And what's interesting in Alabama is in Alabama, a PAC can transfer as much as it wants to a party, and a party can transfer as much as it wants to a candidate. So here was a way to do two things, first of all to get around that $500 limit and second of all to find donors who weren't afraid of giving to Alabama, in fact, you know, who may not have had a particular interest in Alabama but were giving to further the broader Republican cause of that group in Washington.
And so what they did was they raised $2 million from out of state, about half of the Alabama GOP's budget for that election cycle, and that really swamped the Democrats. And so they had the resources that were needed, you know, to ride this 2010 surge and finally push the Democrats out of power.
Also the second component, you know, Hubbard was also raising money in Alabama from those donors who didn't want to give to him, and he had them send their checks out of state to Washington to the same group. So it was kind of a swap. It was kind of a mix and match. And this was a way to get money into the state that was sort of untainted, wouldn't cause any problems for the donors, but got the resources to the party to make it happen.
DAVIES: And in some cases the money was from Alabama who didn't want their names on contribution lists because they were afraid of retribution from Democrats. And in this case their contributions were disclosed somewhere to somebody, but it was such a maze that it would get lost, and nobody would know that they were donating.
CONFESSORE: That's right. There's basically an informal agreement because if it's a formal agreement, right, it raises certain questions as far as disclosure. But if they have an informal agreement like look, I'm going to raise money for you, and I hope that you'll come in and send money into the state to help me, that kind of passes the smell test usually, or at least the legal test in most states.
But for example there was a tribe, Poarch Creek Band of Indians in Alabama, this is a federally recognized tribe, and they run several large resort casinos in Alabama. Now this tribe has a vested interest in preventing the further expansion of gambling beyond their casinos, like bingo parlors for example, which were popular and semi-legal in the state for a while.
And so they would want to help the Republicans gain the majority because it would protect their business, but they can't give money to the Republicans directly because Republicans in Alabama are opposed to gambling and won't take their checks. So instead Hubbard and his team went to this tribe and said look, you know, it's still possible to be helpful for us.
And lo and behold, the tribe sends over a quarter-million dollars to that Washington group, and the Washington group of course puts money back into Alabama to help efforts for Hubbard there. So it's a way of sort of, you know, scrubbing the source of the money and finding money, you know, somewhere where it won't hurt the person getting it and will protect the person giving it.
In this case it wasn't a swap. In fact the Porch Creek Tribe money, this is an illustration of how these things work, it went from Alabama to an account in Pennsylvania, which then transferred it to the Iowa party. And so, you know, it's this kind of daisy chain of transactions that makes a mush of where all the money is coming. And I compare it, you know, to a Cayman Islands bank, which is not to say it's illegal, but merely this is a great way of obscuring the source of money and of sidestepping some regulations that apply to campaign finance.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Nick Confessore of the New York Times. He writes about campaign finance. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Nick Confessore. He writes for the New York Times about campaign finance. Now I've done a bit of reporting on campaign finance. And I know that there may be circumstances in which transfers of one political committee or state party or candidate to another may be legal, but there are usually provisions in state laws, which say that you can't give to somebody and have them give to somebody else with the intent of obscuring the real source of the donations.
A lot of this stuff sounds like it comes close to that. Is anybody investigating whether this might be laundering?
CONFESSORE: Well, it seems to come close, but it seems to be all on the up and up, you know, at least officially. All of these funds are raised by these national groups, un-earmarked, for general purposes only. So they do not typically accept money, you know, where the donors are earmarking it for a specific race or a specific purpose.
And so the transfers are done in a way that basically avoids problems for the group, legally in most cases. There have been some exceptions where there are some hiccups. But, you know, for the most part if you're careful and have good lawyers, and the money is being allocated to the proper accounts, and you're not violating any rules about corporate money that can't spent here or labor money can't be spent there, it's kosher at the end of the day, surprisingly enough.
DAVIES: So what this means when the money is actually spent is that in an individual competitive race, in a state legislative or state Senate district, a candidate suddenly finds that there's a whole lot of negative ads or mailers or robo phone calls attacking them from some mysterious source, and they lose. That's what happens?
CONFESSORE: That's correct. I mean, you know, it's sometimes mysterious. What you have to imagine, right, is that both parties have these interlocking directorates, so to speak, of PACs, party strategists and political nonprofit groups all around the country. Some are state-based, and some are based in Washington. And they all work together.
And they employ a bunch of different strategies, and it all depends on what the rules are in the given state. That's why this works so well. For example in a state that has, you know, low contribution limits for parties or candidates, where as a result it is hard to simply hand a check to the party or the candidate and have them be well-funded in that manner, what they'll often do is go in, set up a shadow party or a state superPAC, and they'll spend money on issue ads or campaign ads that are kind of, you know, around the campaign finance structure, at least around the party and the candidate structure, right.
In some states where there are no limits, like Pennsylvania, and where the state party is reputable and well-led, and they have a good strategy, these national groups will simply cut a check to that state party, $2, $3, $4, $5 million, or to the candidate, and hand them the money to use.
But you know, and then in some states you have both. And Pennsylvania again is a good example. You add the RGA and the RSLC, these two Republican national groups, put a lot of money into the state party and into the candidacy of the Republican governor there, Tom Corbett, in 2010. And at the same time, the RSLC though, you know what, there are a couple of races that we want to focus particularly on.
And so they set up a group in Pennsylvania, and it ran this blizzard of ads against just three candidates. It was about $400,000 spent on three candidates for the state House, mostly in suburban and exurban areas of Pennsylvania. So you can imagine how far that money goes.
And I talked to a few of them, and they said wow, this came from nowhere. This was just a blizzard of mailings and negative ads from this group that nobody ever heard of, and I lost my race because of it. I heard that several times.
DAVIES: Well, we've been talking about how Republicans have very effectively funneled contributions from national sources into particular states to allow them to gain control of a particular state legislature and the governor. Democrats have been busy, too. Tell us about Minnesota.
CONFESSORE: What you see on the Democratic side is a slightly different approach, typically. There are some national groups, and there are counterparts to those groups, but you also tend to have these pretty robust state-based organizations that then work in partnership with the national group, and they're often not party organizations, and that's the key.
So Minnesota is a state where again there is a $500 limit on contributions to candidates, and it is kind of limiting because you can't just hand them a check for $20,000, or half a million for that matter, and it's hard to get money to them. And so in 2012, a group called the Gill Action Fund, which focuses on gay rights, decided look, in Minnesota we need to get involved.
There is an amendment on the ballot that year that would outlaw gay marriage, and there was a Republican majority in both houses of the legislature. And they believed that they could do two things. First they could work in partnership with some other gay rights groups to beat back the amendment.
But second, if they could flip the legislature over to the Democrats, they could stop it from happening again and perhaps pass approval of gay marriage and counterattack. Now what they are is essentially a network of a few hundred gay rights donors around the country. And they work on a model where they do a couple of different things. First they'll raise large checks and put them into superPACs and parties where necessary.
But they will also raise lots and lots of money for candidates by directing their donors to a website called Outgiving, and they will say here are the candidates that we are backing, here are the people that we are trying to defeat who are enemies of gay rights. And each of those donors can then pick from a menu, basically, and send checks to as many of those candidates as they would like.
And here's the effect of that. Instead of a group raising a lot of money from a bunch of people and then cutting one large check to a candidate, which it can't do in Minnesota, they cut out the middleman. They have 200 donors each give a smaller median size check to half-a-dozen candidates. It's a money bomb.
And so all of a sudden you had a couple of candidates who were getting thousands of dollars from these donors they had never met in Los Angeles, in New York and in the Hudson Valley of New York, in San Francisco. These were all gay donors, and the money was coming to them without even being asked for. So that was a way to sort of get around some of the limits there, again totally legally and pretty innovative.
And so that is what was happening out of state. But in state, these gay rights groups had a partner to work with. It's a group called the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. And what it essentially does is it's set up as a political nonprofit, and it organizes and coordinates all the spending and political activity, or a lot of the spending and political activity, by environmental groups and abortion rights groups and labor unions.
And it puts them all around a table, and it's financed with some large checks from unions and from a couple of wealthy progressives in Minnesota. And so what they do is they raise a ton of money into this nonprofit, which is unregulated as far as it can spend whatever it wants, and it can raise whatever it wants from whoever it wants.
It raised a bunch of money from out of state to go with all the money it raised from the instate donors, and in doing this, they had elected Mark Dayton the governor in 2010, and two years later they worked in partnership again, and they elected Democratic majorities in the state House, and a few months later, the state became the 15th in the country to approve gay marriage, and all those investments were realized.
GROSS: Nick Confessore will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Confessore writes about money and politics for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Nicholas Confessore, who writes about money and politics for The New York Times.
On Sunday, he wrote about a national strategy both parties are using to funnel national money into local elections with the goal of the party taking over both the state legislature and governor's office, effectively creating one-party rule.
DAVIES: Let's talk a bit about the difference it makes when you have single-party control of state government. You write that there are 36 states in the country in which the governor chair both legislative houses are controlled by a single party, 23 of those are Republicans, 13 Democrats. What's the impact in terms of policy? What do we see when a party gains control?
CONFESSORE: It's massive. It's massive. I mean what you really see are liberals and conservatives trying out all their big ideas in ways that they can't do in Washington because of the split control, because of filibustering and for all kinds of other reasons. You have gay marriage being approved around the country. You had the minimum wage being raised. You have pre-K being expanded. You have taxes being raised on the rich. In the conservative- controlled states, you have taxes being rolled back. You have unions being restricted. You have abortions being restricted. So essentially, they become true laboratories in the true sense of the word. They, you know, become laboratories for the two parties, for two dominant political movements.
The plus side of this is that you have some accountability. You know, in these states, you know, people are getting a chance to see what life is like if one side really has a chance to run with the wind and try on its big ideas. The downside is, you know, it's sort of, it's putting the country in this place where depending on where you live, you live in a totally different country and it could be just across the border. Let's look at Minnesota and Wisconsin. These are two states that are demographically very similar, historically very similar, same kinds of populations and people cross the border all the time, they have family on both sides. And what we're seeing is this incredible divergence of policy and politics in these two states.
In one state they're raising taxes on the rich. They're expanding pre-K. They legalize gay marriage and the other, where Scott Walker is governor of Wisconsin, they're rolling back regulations. They're trying to cut taxes. They've kind of made it harder for some unions to organize. It's a very - it's a very different place. And then you go even broader, think about the impact on a national program, like President Obama's health care initiative. If you live in a Republican-dominated state, you could live in a state where it's illegal for nonprofits to help people enroll, where Medicaid has not been expanded, where other provisions of the law are being resisted or being sued.
And if you live in a Democratic state, all those things can be the opposite. You might have a functioning health care exchange. You might have a real partnership between government and nonprofit groups to get people enrolled as fast as possible. And in a weird way, if you look at it, the success or failure of President Obama's health care plan, which is the centerpiece of his presidency, in large part rests on the ability of the two parties to wage these battles for partisan control at the state level.
DAVIES: You know, the voters don't like what they're seeing when a party is in control, of course, they have the next election at which they can, you know, make a different choice. However, you know, election results are very much influenced by the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn. What's the impact of one-party control on the drawing of legislative boundaries, both for the state legislature and Congress?
CONFESSORE: You know, again, it's profound. And I think this is probably a more clearly troubling part of this. What we see in the states that have one-party control is that the dominant party - especially in 2010, after that last census - drew all the districts if they were, you know, allowed to as advantageously as possible for their party to maximize the number of seats they have both in the statehouse and in Congress for their party, and it has the effect of insulating them from the consequences of what they're doing to some extent. If you have a state that has had a majority that has drawn its lines in a way that is so sophisticated that it makes it almost impossible for the other side to win enough votes to retake the majority in a normal election year, you have essentially kind of rigged the system a bit. And so you can not only try your big ideas, but if people don't like them as much as you hoped they would, the consequences of passing policies that prove to be unpopular become a lot less severe and it takes away some of the accountability that you would otherwise see with these parties, you know, trying on their big ideas in a big way.
DAVIES: You know, I think I read more stories about Republicans strategically directing these, you know, national donors to particular races and winning statehouse control and dominating the redistricting process. I seem to read more stories about Republicans doing this than Democrats. Are they just better at it?
CONFESSORE: Well, I think they have more money, or at least they are able to raise more money for this. I think that the - I would say a few things on that. First of all, the groups that specialize in flipping statehouses and state politics and raising money nationally to get involved in state politics, I think the Republicans have done a better job of recruiting their biggest individual and corporate donors, their deepest-pocketed donors, to get involved in this. They've spread the gospel. They said look, your livelihoods, your businesses are going to be affected in a huge way by what happens in the state level and you can win your political victories in a way you might not in Washington. I think Democrats are just catching up on this one.
Two, I think the truth is there are a lot of otherwise progressive big donors who are not particularly fond of unions. And what you have is a little bit of a cleavage between, you know, the natural grassroots and donor base of Democrats, which is labor, and some of the elite kind of individual givers that can supplement labor money in the way that corporate money and, you know, kind of personal money can mingle on the Republican side. We saw in Wisconsin, when there was, you know, the recall effort against Scott Walker, you know, almost all the money on the Democratic side was coming from labor. I did not see the names of big progressive donors really, from out-of-state on those donor rolls. Whereas, on the Walker side, you had, you know, the Kochs were involved there, Sheldon Adelson, the casino owner was in there, so they is really sort of nationalized their state business in a way that I think that the Democrats haven't had.
And then finally, it's interesting. When I look at the respective infrastructures for state politics on the right and left - and this is not universally true - but Republicans seem a lot more eager to get involved in politics. And you see more emphasis on the progressive side on, you know, think tanks and research and policy organizations. And it's not to say that there aren't political organizations and policy organizations on both sides, but you almost have this slight distaste on the left for pure politics, you know, for winning elections and, you know, more of an interest in supporting the production of ideas and the war of ideas. And again, there are pieces of this on both sides. But where I see there is a bit of a mismatch, Republicans and conservatives slightly more focused on the brass tacks work of winning elections. And the liberal and Democratic side, you know, relatively more invested in the war of ideas.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Nicholas Confessore, he writes about money and politics for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with Nicholas Confessore. He writes about money and politics for The New York Times. He has a recent piece about the efforts of the parties to funnel national donations to achieve single-party control in state governments.
You know, there's a big picture issue here that I have to raise. You know, the idea of representative democracy is that citizens in a community or a region or a state, choose people to advocate for their interests. And it was, you know, it's always been in perfect, money has always been a big part of it. But it's one thing if local candidates get checks from local interests. If we increasingly have local candidates funded by people thousands of miles away that they have never met, and that their constituents have never heard of, I mean this does seem like a troubling perversion of, you know, kind of the fundamental principles of democracy. Anybody making that point or trying to do something about it?
CONFESSORE: I mean it's a fascinating question. I think especially when we're talking about, you know, local politics essentially, the state legislator, a person who even more than a, you know, member of Congress today, who might represent hundreds of thousands of people, right? A state lawmaker is really, really, really supposed to be close to the district, right? A real tribune for the people he or she is representing. So, you know, yes, I do find it a real shift that essentially, if you nationalize these state elections, if you nationalize especially the legislative elections, I mean, you know, a big governor's race, right, is always going to draw national money in it, and it has for a long time. But the flow of out-of-state money and big out-of-state money into these little races all around for the purposes of essentially just generally advancing the partisan interest is kind of a shift. And I think you're right, it kind of attenuates the representative character of local government in a way that I do not think is necessarily a great thing.
DAVIES: Right. And a lot of this happens because very, very smart lawyers kind of look at every state's election laws and finds, you know, the creases and seams to get something done that maybe people didn't intend. Is there a fix?
CONFESSORE: That's a great question. You know, we really can't mandate national standards and rules for campaign finance. And truthfully, we also have a First Amendment. And you can't tell a, you know, an out-of-state person or company or a union that they shouldn't be putting money into a race somewhere across the country that they find important. It's not really the way we do things in America. But certainly, I believe that there are efforts on both sides - especially the progressive side - you see real efforts to pass campaign overhauls and change the rules for campaign finance. At the state level you see pushes for public financing of campaigns all around the country.
And part of the point there is again, there are, you know, sound arguments against public financing, there are people who object to it for good reasons. But one argument made in favor of public financing is essentially the money for the campaigns comes from the people who the campaigns are impacting, whose lives will be affected by the decisions made by the folks who are getting elected. And so in a way, a given public financing system, you know, does bring the money back into state. And even if you can't get everybody on to a state's public financing system, it can even the score a little bit.
DAVIES: You know, if a state legislator finds that he's suddenly being attacked, not so much by his opponent, but by an outside group that has unlimited money to put into negative ads, he can make the case, hey, I'm genuine, I'm authentic and local. My opponent is being funded by outside interests. Journalists do write about this. But do the candidates who benefit from national money really pay a price when it's exposed?
CONFESSORE: You know, certainly a price can be paid. You know, in Alabama now, they talk about Boss Hubbard - that's Speaker Mike Hubbard, the guy who led the effort for Republican takeover there. And the tribal money he's raised has gotten some attention and there's been some downside for him. So there is sometimes a political cost. But, you know, one thing that is problematic here again, for the accountability for knowing who's paying for what is that while, you know, most of this money - not all of it certainly, but most of it is disclosed somewhere.
Look, I can tell you, you can go to some of these states and the campaign records are a mess. I had some very nice people in the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's office helping me on this story, looking up records. And, you know, even with many people working on going in the filing cabinets, you know, a lot of these records are not actually online in 2014. Some states have bad record-keeping. Some states have great record-keeping. So one sort of way of making clear that we know who is paying for what is simply good recordkeeping.
I'll give you an example that I found shocking when I learned about it. Florida has pretty loose campaign finance laws in the sense that you can spend a lot of money. You can spend corporate money on stuff. And there has been a huge amount of money going into what are, in essence, state SuperPACs down there. Florida does not require people running SuperPACs or making what they call these independent expenditures to report the target of the spending.
So what that means is if you go into the Florida records - and Florida tends to have pretty good records in other ways - you can see that there was - I believe it's something like $20 or $30 million spent on these expenditures in the last couple of cycles. But we have no idea what those expenditures were going to do, who they were attacking or defending. We simply had no idea. It's a black hole.
And so that's a good example of how, you know, small little things in recordkeeping and disclosure laws can create huge amounts of dark money flowing through the system where you just have no idea who's paying for the ads and in this case who the ads are attacking or defending.
DAVIES: So one thing that would probably help would be state laws which would require all records to be filed online and which make meaningful disclosures about both who the money is coming from and who it's attacking, but to make those changes in state laws you've got to go to the same state legislatures that are controlled by a single party that may be benefiting from it.
CONFESSORE: That's right. In fact, in Michigan just recently the governor and legislature there, who are all Republican, passed a provision that will essentially prevent more disclosure of political spending from political non-profit groups. So essentially they've created a new loophole, a new way of moving political money into state races in Michigan in a way that will obscure the source of the donors.
And so that, you know, is certainly a step backwards on disclosure, and as a reporter, as a journalist, I've got to declare my interest here. I, in general, support disclosure because it's how we follow the money. It's how we track things. It's how we explain to readers and voters who's paying for what and why.
DAVIES: Well, Nicholas Confessore, I want to thank you for spending some time with us.
CONFESSORE: It's my pleasure, Dave.
GROSS: Nicholas Confessore spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Confessore's article about the national strategy to fund state political monopolies was published in Sunday's New York Times as part of its series One Party Rule. You'll find a link to his article on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.