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The Republican Party's 50-State Solution

Since the early 1970s, the right has conducted a sustained drive to gain power and set policy in the 50 states. The left, by contrast, has been far less effective at the state-level. The sustained determination on the part of the conservative movement has paid off in an unprecedented realignment of power in state governments.

Jeb Bush speaking with members of the Portsmouth Rotary Club in Greenland, N.H.,photo credit: Jim Cole / Associated Press // New York Times
Seven years ago, Democrats had a commanding lead in state legislatures, controlling both legislative chambers in 27 states, nearly double the 14 controlled by Republicans. They held 4082 state senate and house seats, compared to the Republicans' 3223.
Sweeping Republican victories at the state level in 2010 and 2014 transformed the political landscape.
By 2015, there were Republican majorities in 70 percent - 68 of 98 - of the nation's partisan state houses and senates, the highest number in the party's history. (Nebraska isn't counted in because it has a non-partisan, unicameral legislature.) Republicans controlled the legislature and governorship in 23 states, more than triple the seven under full Democratic control.
What drove the right to invest so heavily at the state and local level, while the left fell behind?
"The civil rights movement taught the left the lesson that one could win in `one fell swoop' by going for national level changes," Frank Baumgartner, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, wrote me in an email. Baumgartner's view was echoed by a number of other scholars I contacted.
"It comes purely from a strategic political calculus," according to Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego:
The federal government has become more progressive over its history in the case of slavery, the New Deal, the civil rights advances from 1957-1965, and the environmental regulations of the 1970s. When you lose battles at the national level but still hold sway in many states, taking a stand for states' rights becomes the rational thing to do.
"What's changed seems to be the result of the relatively recent nationalization of state campaign financing," Morgan Kousser, a professor of history at Caltech (and, as it happens, Thad Kousser's father), wrote in an email:
The Koch brothers understand the importance of controlling state legislatures; George Soros doesn't. I'm not sure why this should be the case, but since we're really talking about a relatively small number of mega-donors who have caused this, it's a rather restricted question.
Liberal foundations, in the view of Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America foundation,
have for a long time got perpetually distracted by fads and short-term metrics, whereas conservative foundations were willing to invest much more in long-term organizational capacity.
"How the Right Trounced Liberals in the States," by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol, in the Winter edition of the journal Democracy, documents the failure of the left to keep pace with the substantial investments by the right in building local organizations.
Liberals, according to Hertel-Fernandez, a graduate student at Harvard, and Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology there, "have left behind little more than a litany of abandoned acronyms."
The authors provide several examples of such failures: The National Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies "faded and by the 1980s, CASLP's founder had moved on to other projects." The Center for Policy Alternatives "closed its doors in 2008." The Progressive States Network "never reached the levels attained by" its conservative counterparts. They go on to note that left initiatives have lost traction
as liberal funders switch to a nascent competitor. In many ways, the funding problem has gotten worse now that unions are struggling with declining dues-paying memberships and adverse legal decisions that threaten their very existence.
Why do trends at the local level contrast with trends at the national level, where Democrats have made substantial gains in the competition for political money?
Sixteen years ago, in 2000, the Republican National, Senatorial and Congressional Committees outraised their Democratic counterparts by nearly $300 million, $923 million to $631 million. George W. Bush spent $172.1 million to Al Gore's $127.1 million.
Four years ago, in 2012, the Democratic national committees raised $1.07 billion to the Republicans' $1.02 billion. The Obama campaign spent $632 million to Mitt Romney's $389 million.
Away from the national level, the commitment of conservative donors to support a power shift in state government illustrates the determination of the right to eliminate regulatory and legal constraints on markets where their money has proven most productive.
Attempts to control the White House have become far more risky with the rise of a strong Democratic presidential coalition. In 2012, conservative groups put $700 million in a bid to win the presidency, two and a half times as much as liberal groups, but Obama still won decisively.
The states, it turns out, are more receptive to the drive of the Koch Companies and their corporate allies to protect their business interests.
The Koch brothers' have invested in such state-regulated areas as refining, chemicals, biofuels and ingredients; forest products; fertilizers; polymers and fibers. For the extractive industries, in particular, along with chemical, pharmaceutical, and lumber concerns, Republican-led deregulatory efforts can increase profits.
Wealthy liberal donors, on the other hand, are driven by ideological convictions that can be volatile, as Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol put it, "to shifting donor fashions."
In addition, investing in such national liberal causes as refugee resettlement, climate change, gay marriage, and voting rights has the appeal of participation on a high visibility issue - with the likelihood of public acclaim. Investing in state organizations provides far fewer public rewards.
The willingness of conservatives to weather difficulty and to endure prolonged delay has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past decades.
In 1973, as the Watergate scandal was closing in on the Nixon administration, conservatives financed the creation of two institutions: the Heritage Foundation to counter the left on national policy, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to foster state-based conservative lobbies, interest groups and foundations.
There was no short term advantage. In 1974, Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Republicans also lost over 700 seats in state legislatures, leaving them at their lowest level since 1938. After the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Democrats were back in power in Washington.
Conservative donors were undaunted. ALEC and Heritage continued to grow. When the right came back in full force in the election of 1980, Heritage was ready to offer a guiding hand. Once Ronald Reagan took office, the Heritage Foundation's legislative blueprint, "Mandate for Leadership," became the Reagan administration's "policy bible."
The elections of 2006 and 2008, in turn, were interpreted as sounding the death knell for conservatism. "The new Democratic majority assembled by Obama represents the emergence of a Great Society electoral coalition,"Philip Klinkner and Thomas Schaller, political scientists at Hamilton and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, argued in the January 2009 edition of The Forum.
Nonetheless, conservatives maintained their investment in building state-level infrastructure, not only in ALEC but in the State Policy Network and the interlocking foundations created by Charles and David Koch.
The total investment of the right in state and local organizations now reaches well into the hundreds of millions.
In 2013, ALEC had a relatively modest budget of $7.3 million. That figure, however, distracts from a much larger investment by the right.
When the State Policy Network was founded in 1986, it had 12 affiliated state-based groups and a goal of creating an "interstate freedom network" to spread "the growth of freedom across America until a permanent freedom majority is built." Today, there are one or more affiliated organizations in every state.
An examination of IRS reports from all of these conservative groups shows total spending in just one year, 2013, of $142.2 million, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation's $8.9 million the largest expenditure.
The State Policy Network's single year total of $142.2 million is dwarfed by the network of foundations financed by Charles and David Koch and allied donors, individual and corporate.
The complex transactions between the foundations in the Koch Brothers network obscure the dollar amount of their investments in state and local organizations. But the Koch Companies' June Quarterly Newsletter notes that the Koch brothers "hope to raise $889 million by the end of 2016, about two-thirds of which will help support research and education programs, scholarships and other efforts designed to change policies and promote a culture of freedom in the United States."
When Republicans swept the House and Senate in 2010, the earlier investments paid off. ALEC, the State Policy Network and the Koch foundations had a ready-made conservative agenda for newly empowered Republican legislators and governors, an agenda that has produced an upheaval in environmental regulation, labor law, voting rights and reproductive rights.
Conservatives have some inherent advantages in building a state and local infrastructure.
Rob Stein, a founder of the Democracy Alliance - a "partnership" of liberal donors established in 2005 - pointed out in a phone interview that the right can tap into an embedded
structure of community-based cultural, religious, social organizations - churches, Elks, veterans halls, gun groups, local business organizations, etc. - that are gathering places with offices, meeting halls, phones and computers that can be used by activist troops for logistical and operational support.
Stein, who has worked in the field for decades, said that the result for conservatives is that
your volunteers and paid activists come out of a values-based institution, which is essentially not a political institution. People are there because of their values. If you come to politics from a club or church or veterans hall, it reinforces the stickiness of your work, your willingness to keep at it even if you are tired.
By comparison, Stein argued, "progressives don't have these community based, indigenous resources to educate, organize and mobilize troops anymore." With the exception of unions, "we have fewer local places to gather and belong."
While organized labor remains influential in state elections, membership has collapsed to 6.6 percent in the private sector, and public sector unions are under sustained assault. This week, the five-member conservative bloc on the Supreme Court appeared prepared to deal another blow to the union movement in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
In 2004, major liberal donors financed two new national groups created specifically for the 2004 presidential election - Americans Coming Together ($79,795,487) and the Joint Victory Committee ($71,811,666).
Despite the investment, the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, lost. At that point, the liberal donor community came to general agreement that the left needed a secure a permanent infrastructure at the national level to compete with such conservative institutions as the Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Heritage.
A year later, Democracy Alliance established its goal of building a "progressive infrastructure that could help counter the well-funded and sophisticated conservative apparatus in the areas of civic engagement, leadership, media, and ideas."
At a national level, the alliance has played a significant role in the development of such groups as the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; Catalist, which builds and maintains voter lists; and Media Matters, which seeks to document and discredit "conservative misinformation throughout the media."
Last year, the alliance initiated a program to direct a portion of members' contributions to state and local groups. I emailed Gara LaMarche, the president of the alliance, to ask how reliable alliance members are in continuing their support of relatively low-visibility state organizations. His answer:
By our best accounting, at the end of last year DA Partners gave about $15 million to these funds, on top of the almost $60 million they committed to the other DA Portfolio groups.
LaMarche described the response as encouraging, noting that the alliance aims "to at least double the contributions to the funds in 2016."
LaMarche voiced some confidence that "DA donors will stay the course." He acknowledged that
our Partners don't have the bottom line personal or corporate financial interest that fuels a good deal of the right's giving, but I believe they increasingly get the importance and urgency of the state-level work, where the right has made such gains - with such damage to the progressive agenda - in recent years.
During our conversation, Stein, who had helped start the organization, raised some doubts:
It has begun to appear that the twenty-first century progressive brain is not as interested in clubs, communities and cultural sharing as the conservative brain is.
How, Stein asked, "could we have lost that? How does a communitarian world view lose its communitarian sense of self?"
The short answer to Stein's question may be that the nature of political liberalism has changed.
The liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s was shaped by the Great Depression, and the response was, in many respects, communitarian: the strengthening of unions, the provision of jobs and government benefits to the poor and unemployed and the creation of a safety net to provide a modicum of security.
The left has, in part, shifted focus, with more stress on the values of self-expression and self-fulfillment, on individual liberation from the constraints of traditional morality, especially sexual morality - what my colleague Ross Douthat calls "The Liberalism of Adult Autonomy" or "the morality of rights." Economic liberalism - despite progress on the minimum wage - has lost salience.
Instead of communitarian principles, the contemporary progressive movement - despite its advocacy of local issues like community policing - has produced a counterpart to conservative advocacy of free markets: the advocacy of personal freedom.
Insofar as liberals continue to leave the state-level organization to conservatives, they are conceding the most productive policy arenas in the country.
The federal government, currently immobilized by partisan division, is now incapable of enacting major new initiatives, left or right. The 2010 enactment Obamacare was the last such initiative. States are the place where new programs and policies are emerging on an almost weekly basis.
As left interests are being cut out of this process, the groundbreaking work is being done on the right. The losses for the Democratic Party and its allies include broken unions, defunded Planned Parenthood, lost wetlands and forests, restrictive abortion regulations and the enactment of open-carry gun laws.
While the presidential race captures our attention - and as the left has withdrawn from low-level combat - conservatives have overseen the drawing of legislative and congressional districts that will keep Republicans in power over the next decade. In this way, through the most effective gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts in the nation's history, the right has institutionalized a dangerous power vacuum on the left.