State Elections Offer Superior ROI

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.