by Karl Kurtz
During a television interview on a California public affairs program recently, I was asked a question I was not prepared for and had not thought much about: How will the Citizens United Supreme Court decision affect state legislative races? This was a reference to the so-called super Political Action Committees (PACs), not tied to candidates and not subject to fundraising or expenditure limits, that are receiving so much attention in the presidential race and other federal elections.
Instead of saying I didn't know, which is what I should have done, I ventured that I thought that state legislative races are so far down the ballot that the likelihood was small that independent PACs would pay attention to them--with the possible exception of highly targeted races in California, the home of the most expensive state legislative campaigns.
Some Internet research provides some support for my guess but mostly shows that we don't really know at this stage of the campaign. The Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article, "Super PACs at the State Legislative Level: A Different Story," that is based on a report earlier this year by the National Institute for Money in Politics. That report shows the potential for substantial independent PAC involvement in state races by documenting the fact that donors who gave $25,000 or more to Super PACs in 2011 also donated $36.8 million to state campaigns during the 2008-2010 elections.
The report cautions, though, that "the role Super PACs play in state elections cannot be known until nearer the 2012 elections." Part of the problem is state reporting requirements, the Institute's Edwin Bender told CJR:
“Late, fragmented and non-existent reporting are all problems at the state level.... If super PACs are going to play at the state level, we’re not going to find out until later, and it will probably happen in a very different way than in congressional or presidential races.”
Bender is also quoted in the CJR article as saying that the focus of independent PACs at the state level will be on attorney-general, gubernatorial and judicial races because they provide "a good return on investment."
He agrees with my speculation that the super PACs will not play a large role in state legislative races but for a different reason:
Bender said it’s unlikely we’ll see outside groups spending on slates of state legislative candidates. “If a super PAC were to weigh into state-level elections at the level they have in federal races, I think the threat of a backlash is very real.”
Beyond these stories, I found a reference to one super PAC in California that is supporting independent candidates' campaigns in California. Most of the expenditures of the icPurple PAC have been on congressional races, but they are also active in at least one state Assembly race and the San Diego mayoral campaign running up to the state's June 5 primary.
There's also the curious case of PACs that top leaders of the Idaho House Republican majority contributed to that then made expenditures in efforts to defeat fellow incumbent Republican House members in the primary election last week. Their efforts were unsuccessful.
A Sacramento Bee story today reports that independent PACs are active in about one-third of all California state races:
Observers say the number of competitive races this year, a product of redistricting, a new primary process and turnover in the Legislature, is driving [independent PAC expenditure] numbers up.
"You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an independent expenditure right now," Democratic campaign consultant Andrew Acosta said.