ADVERTISEMENT

Alabama: Mike Hubbard shuffled hundreds of thousands of dollars from out-of-state donors to state Republican candidates.

William Widmer • New York Times,

California: Rob McKay, chairman of the Democracy Alliance, is aiming to move swing states into the Democratic column.

l.Jim Wilson • New York Times,

The rising surge of one-party states

  • Article by: NICHOLAS CONFESSORE New York Times
  • January 11, 2014 - 9:21 PM

By his third year as chairman of the Alabama Republican organization, Mike Hubbard believed his party had just about everything it needed to win control of the state Legislature.

He had a plan with detailed district-by-district budgets and precise voter turnout ­targets. He had candidates, most of them political novices recruited with an eye toward the anti-establishment fervor roiling the country.

What Hubbard did not have was enough money. Alabama law barred corporations, a deep-pocketed natural ally for state Republicans, from giving more than $500 to candidates and parties — a limit that did not apply to the state’s unions.

So began a nationwide quest for cash that would take Hubbard to the Republican parties in states like Florida and Ohio, to a wealthy Texan who was one of the country’s biggest GOP givers and to a Washington organization that would provide checks from dozens of out-of-state corporations.

Remake the landscape

Exploiting a loophole in the state law and a network of political action committees in Alabama and Washington, Hubbard shuffled hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars into the Republican organization in Alabama, vastly outraising the state Democratic Party. On Election Day, Republicans won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction — and Alabama joined the rapidly growing fraternity of states where government is controlled by a single political party. Alabama’s transformation was the product, in part, of a sophisticated political apparatus designed to channel political money from around the country into states where conditions were ripe for a GOP takeover. In 2010, the effort achieved striking success, moving a dozen states to sole Republican control, including presidential swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In 2012, a resurgent Democratic version — financed chiefly by labor unions and wealthy liberal donors rather than corporations — began to catch up, spearheading Democratic takeovers in Minnesota and Colorado.

Their combined work has helped remake the nation’s political landscape. Republicans or Democrats control both the legislature and the governor’s office in 36 states, the most in 60 years. Twenty-three states are now solely controlled by the GOP, and 13 solely by Democrats.

Interviews with more than 50 donors, strategists and elected officials involved with those efforts, along with a review of thousands of pages of public records, revealed how the Democratic and Republican state machines share an array of strategies and goals.

Both sides rely on interlocking networks of political action committees, party organizations and nonprofits, often based in states with forgiving campaign finance rules, that work in concert to raise ­contributions and shuffle money to thousands of local races around the country.

Today, state and even local races increasingly are financed by checks written hundreds or thousands of miles away. A five-figure contribution from a Colorado energy executive passes through a bank account registered in Pennsylvania, where it is mixed with money that ends up in the campaign coffers of an attorney general candidate in Iowa. Business money raised in Michigan, where corporate contributions to candidates are banned, fuels campaigns in Florida and Maine, where such contributions are legal.

In early 2010, a little-known group called the Republican State Leadership Committee approached Ed Gillespie, a longtime GOP strategist who has played a central role in efforts to swing state legislatures to Republican control.

Gillespie came on as chairman. He took his pitch to Wall Street investors in New York, energy executives in Dallas and dozens of corporate government relations offices in Washington.

Keep House under GOP control

Republicans could do more than just flip a few state legislatures, he told them. They could use their new statehouse majorities to build a firewall in the U.S. House: congressional districts so favorably drawn for Republicans that the party’s House majority would endure for a decade.

The group’s fundraising shot up, bolstered by bigger contributions from longtime donors and new money from the burgeoning network of conservative political groups.

The bulk of that money went into a carefully laid assault on Democratic lawmakers in 19 states, planned in tandem with efforts by the Republican Governors Association. In some states, the groups handed cash directly to state parties or candidates. Elsewhere, they spent millions on hard-to-track radio and television advertisements.

Alabama was an obvious target. Hubbard, a state representative, and officials at the leadership committee believed just one well-organized push would send the Democrats into permanent minority status.

Yet state law prohibited corporations from giving more than $500. And other potential donors were unwilling to give to the party at all in case the takeover effort failed.

Many of those donors were willing, however, to give to a Republican group in Washington. After meeting with leadership committee officials, Hubbard, along with his finance chairman, state Sen. Del Marsh, began raising money for the group. During the 2010 cycle, the leadership committee took in close to $1 million from Alabama donors. And over the same period, the group directed about $1.4 million into an Alabama-registered political action committee, all of it from out-of-state corporations. The arrangement also offered donors a way to help Hubbard without their checks showing up on the Alabama party’s public filings.

© 2014 Star Tribune