Political Animal


October 02, 2012 12:32 PM State Elections Offer Superior ROI

By Ed Kilgore

There’s an interesting WaPo piece today by T.W. Farnam concerning a million-dollar investment by the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity in, of all places, Arkansas:

Arkansas is not a battleground in the presidential race, being solidly in Mitt Romney’s camp. It doesn’t have a U.S. Senate contest or gubernatorial election this year. Even its four House races are not considered competitive.
But Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has pledged to spend nearly $1 million here.
The prize lies farther down the ballot: Both houses of the Arkansas legislature are in play this November, with every seat up for reelection for the first time in a decade.

Arkansas has a constitutional quirk whereby all seats in both houses of the legislature are up in the first election after redistricting (state Senator are randomly assigned either two or four-year terms after the election to provide staggered terms between redistricting cycles). So the whole ball of wax is in play this November, and Arkansas is the last state in the Old Confederacy where Democrats control any state legislative chamber (they control both there, but by relatively small margins).

Conservatives have figured out a lot faster than progressives that relatively small amounts of money can go a long way in state legislative campaigns, especially in low-cost states like Arkansas. Some of you may recall Jane Mayer’s scary article in the New Yorker last year that explained in detail how wealthy ideologue Art Pope financed a Republican takeover of the North Carolina legislature in 2010 by vast, unprecedented spending in targeted districts. AFP isn’t spending at Pope’s levels in Arkansas, but the group clearly thinks it has a strong chance of obtaining similar results. And indeed, Pope serves on AFP’s board.

I don’t know what if anything the Kochs and their friends want from the Arkansas legislature. Maybe it’s just a point of pride to try to get rid of the last vestige of Democratic state level political power in the Deep South. But we’ve been reminded repeatedly over the last two years that in our system an awful lot of important decisions are made in state capitals, even in terms of implementation of national policies like the Affordable Care Act. And while wealthy conservatives are obviously not ignoring the presidential or congressional elections, it’s amazing what you can accomplish in state legislative elections with the functional equivalent of sofa-cushion money. It just offers a really good ROI.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on October 02, 2012 12:50 PM:

    Federalism in action. Dotcha love it?

  • Hedda Peraz on October 02, 2012 12:56 PM:

    I would be cheaper if the Kochs simply went to Central America and bought a whole damn country. Plus, no annoying "Constitutions" to worry about.

  • JMG on October 02, 2012 1:02 PM:

    Let's not forget this sort of wholesale purchase is only possible because of the deliberate and proud lack of political knowledge among American citizens, most of whom cannot name their state legislator and hence are suckers for advertising they do know is specious, just out of lack of interest.

  • c u n d gulag on October 02, 2012 1:12 PM:

    This, THIS, is why we need at least a 75% tax rate on the toppest of the top 1%!!!
    And, AND, an inheritance tas of at least 90% over a certain amount.

    Let them spend their left-over cash paying Tax Attorney's and CPA's looking for double-secret tax loopholes!
    Let their kids have to earn their own place in America.

    I bet they spent more than if they paid a 39% tax rate!

    Besides, both of these schmucks inherited a ton of cash, so it's not like they're some kind of creative business geniuses.

  • SadOldVet on October 02, 2012 1:46 PM:

    I donít know what if anything the Kochs and their friends want from the Arkansas legislature.

    How about the entire ALEC agenda?

  • Peter C on October 02, 2012 2:04 PM:

    Having 'government be for sale' seems to be a really horrible idea, yes?

  • schtick on October 02, 2012 3:11 PM:

    It would be so much easier for them to buy a country somewhere else, but then they wouldn't get to make the rules of the game they are playing to own the US.

  • Blue Girl on October 02, 2012 4:11 PM:

    Fracking. That's why they want to own the state legislature.

  • Doug on October 02, 2012 5:13 PM:

    I keep hearing about all the horrors that vast tidal waves of right-wing cash will produce in local and state elections. Has there been ANY reputable studies; ie, by anyone WITHOUT an interest in selling political advertising, done that actually reflect this?
    We've discovered this year that throwing gobs of money into campaign advertising isn't nearly effect on a national level as it was feared it would be, why would the same tactic be so much more effective on the state and local level. Especially when there's a much greater chance of people personally knowing the candidates?
    I rather think Blue Girl is correct regarding the Koch Bros. motives for their spending. Still, it'd be great if, after dumping million(s), the Koch Bros. discovered on November 7 it has all been wasted.

  • exlibra on October 02, 2012 9:38 PM:

    Blue Girl is likely right that it's fracking, at least in short term. But I wonder whether that's all. After all, state legislatures often serve as the stepping stones to a wider arena (see, for example, Obama, Barack). Therefore it pays, long term, to cultivate your preferred candidates long before then (and before they show up on anyone's radar screen). Howard Dean understood that very well; it's unfortunate that he had not been allowed to continue his 50 states policy. If he had, we'd have been better prepared to counter ALEC's pernicious influence.