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August 15, 2014 3:12 PM The Local Political Kaboom

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a low-profile, low-budget local political contest might well be chilled by Alexander Burns’ piece at Politico today about the shocking experience of becoming the target—or even the beneficiary—of a sudden infusion of big national “independent” money. In reading it, I’d beware of taking too literally Burns’ “both sides do it” description of efforts by the Koch machine on the one hand, and by Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer on the other, to influence local races. I don’t have reliable numbers handy, but I’m reasonably sure the former still significantly outweighs the latter.

In any event, the phenomenon of cooking along with one’s local campaign and suddenly finding yourself in the crosshairs of money you could not possibly imagine raising or spending is scary and real enough:

Frustrated by paralysis at the federal level, the nation’s wealthiest activists have set their sights with increasing frequency on state and local elections as a new route for effecting policy change. The influx of cash from outside billionaires — namely Bloomberg, the industrialist Koch brothers and environmentalist financier Tom Steyer — has upended what would otherwise be bite-size campaigns for obscure municipal and state offices.
If the races are typically ground-level, retail affairs — the kind in which the candidate who personally knocks on more doors often wins — the issues these tycoons care about have national significance.
From opposing a Franklin County, Ohio, tax hike that would have helped pay for the local zoo, to targeting local candidates in a rural Wisconsin county board race with mining issues at stake, David and Charles Koch have spent unknown sums to oppose the growth of government and support resource-extracting industries.

Better not to tempt fate by messing with the Kochs and their friends, eh?

While Burns focuses on the new willingness of “tycoons” to suddenly nuke local candidates, the other side of the coin is the gradual withering away of local (and even state) news coverage, which means there’s little “earned media” to offset an infusion of paid media. After all, the existence of heavy earned media, along with a relatively even national financial playing field between the two parties, is why heavy campaign advertising is generally regarded as an overrated resource in presidential general elections (not so much in primaries, though). But down at the local level, it has to look like, and often is, a nightmare if you’re on the receiving end.

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.

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