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Republicans hold governorships and legislative majorities in 22 states, compared to 17 for Democrats and 11 states in which government is divided. Yet they don’t always act like it. The following is the fourth in a four-part series on Republican-dominated state legislatures and how they govern.
George Soros is a savvy businessman, and he realizes a good investment when he sees one. That’s why he began plowing money into normally obscure down-ballot races like district attorneys — they matter, and you can win a whole lot of elections with the same amount it might take to move a U.S. Senate contest a fraction of a point.
Conservatives have largely sat out that game, instead focusing on national races where people’s minds are largely already made up. Some responsibility rests on ordinary conservative voters, who likely can’t even name their state legislator. It’s partly the result of a shrinking media industry that has shuttered local papers that used to cover statehouses and local leaders, leaving people to get their information from national outlets that focus on the federal government.
But some strategists also say it’s the fault of wealthy conservative donors who would rather give to prominent Republicans out of vanity, and of lazy Republican consultants who would rather take a cut on big-dollar TV ad buys for a few U.S. Senate races than engage in on-the-ground battles for hundreds of state-level seats that could swing control of multiple state legislatures.
If conservatives ever want to win when it comes to policy — not just elections — something has to change, according to strategists who say they’re on the verge of a statehouse revolution. States aren’t just the junior varsity team for the federal government: they have power over everything that is not explicitly granted to the feds in the Constitution.
Yet many states run by large Republican majorities haven’t moved as aggressively as less-Republican states like Florida, and some residents of those deep-red states are asking why. A Daily Wire analysis relying on American Conservative Union voting scorecards found that South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, and Oklahoma all are more than 80% Republican-controlled, but that their Republican lawmakers are, on average, among the least conservative Republicans in the country — at 36th, 37th, 31st, and 35th.
Thomas Bradbury, director of advocacy and policy at the American Conservative Union, said Soros’ calculation was a brilliant one, and that conservatives could remake a dozen states into new Floridas if they redirected money from national races into statehouse ones. For the same amount as it might cost to influence one congressional election, they could elect a whole slate of school board candidates. And unlike a single congressman, that slate would have total control of decision-making.
“That is exactly what we should be doing as conservatives, rather than lining the pockets of some of these D.C. consultants so they can run more ads that don’t persuade any voters,” he told The Daily Wire.
“Conservatives need to get real that maybe spending all this money on congressional races to get one vote that doesn’t actually affect policy is not nearly as meaningful as spending money in states where the money goes further and they can actually implement policy,” he said. “At the local level, Soros succeeded by investing $40 million into 75 targeted DA races. An astute political operative with a cash-flush operation could do the same thing at the state level.”
In the 2020 election cycle, state Democrat candidates and party committees outraised Republicans at $1.3 billion to $1 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. At the federal level, four consulting firms alone, who often simply buy ads from TV stations and keep a cut, were paid $1 billion in the 2022 election cycle. Those include Waterfront Strategies, which handled ads for Democrat congressional leadership and took in $309 million; Flexpoint Media, which did the same for Republican congressional leaders at $246 million; and Republican firms Targeted Victory and Main Street Media.
Even though most of that money went to expenses such as airtime rather than being kept as profit, D.C. consulting is such a gravy train that former Republican operative Steve Schmidt reportedly planned to accumulate “generational wealth” through processing ad buys for prominent races. That’s all despite the fact that not only is television increasingly irrelevant, but Americans increasingly have strong pre-existing opinions about big-ticket races and a skepticism that means that ads are less likely to persuade on such races.
“If you look at the funding on digital firms in the last election and compare it to how cheap it would have been to door-knock in some of these state races, it’s just insulting,” Bradbury said. “If we want to really impact people, we’ve got to do it at the state level.”
Bradbury said that so little work is put into opposition research at the state level that it harms candidate quality. A Democrat running for election as a moderate could actually be a radical, and no one would dig through his record and publicize it. A Republican could be running in the primary as conservative, without anyone uncovering that he is actually liberal. “At the state level there’s almost no work put into exposing what’s actually happening,” he said.
Connie Hair, who leads the State Freedom Caucus Network’s Louisiana chapter, said that renewed attention to state government would not just replace Democrats with Republicans, but also ensure that the Republicans who ran for office would actually run the state in a boldly conservative way. It makes sense for conservatives who want to help to direct their money to state lawmakers rather than well-heeled Washington politicians, she said: “They have real jobs or own businesses. They are part time and make very very little money.”
Some wealthy conservative donors may focus on federal races for selfish reasons, Bradbury said–wanting to count a household name as a friend. “Donors just need to realize that it might be cooler to say you can call a congressman up and talk to him, but imagine if for the same amount of money you were able to flip a number of state house seats and you could actually get bills through and get things accomplished. That’s a lot better to me and should be a lot better to the movement than just having the influence of one out of 535 members of congress,” he said.
But state races also affect federal ones because states set election laws. In Pennsylvania statehouse races in the 2020 election cycle, Democrats outspent Republicans $22.8 million to $14.4 million. Two years later, they took the state House for the first time in a decade–likely blocking Republicans from implementing election integrity reforms, and potentially helping U.S. Senate candidates win with the help of mail-in ballots in the future.