By Karen ShantonWhat role will independent PACs play in state legislative races?" At the time, he said it was too early to tell but speculated that state legislative races would be too far down-ballot to attract much outside spending.
That seemed like a reasonable prediction. With more than 6,000 races and over 10,000 candidates nationwide – and competition for funds from a tight presidential contest and the potential for a shift in party control of the U.S. Senate – it seemed plausible that state legislative contests could fly under the PAC radar.
As it turns out, however, independent groups haven't stayed entirely on the sidelines in the states. As recent reports make clear, big money has made a big splash in some state-level races this year.
Arkansas Democrats currently hold a 20-15 lead in the state Senate and a 53-46 edge in the House. That puts Republicans just three Senate and five House seats away from control over a legislature they haven't held since the Civil War. If they succeed in shifting the partisan balance (and party control of nearby states remains unchanged), Arkansas will complete a blanket of red, stretching from Kansas to Florida and Texas to North Carolina, in the southeastern part of the country.
Recognizing this pickup opportunity, right-leaning groups have invested heavily in Arkansas races. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group founded by brothers Charles and David Koch, has committed to spending almost $1 million in the state.
The prospect of seizing – or fear of losing – party control of a chamber has also driven independent spending in other states. Both right- and left-leaning groups have entered the battle for the Iowa Senate, and liberal groups in Colorado have poured over $2 million into an effort to hold the Senate and pick up a majority in the House.
In an interesting twist on this move, Kansas saw a PAC-fueled struggle for ideological control of the legislature. AFP joined the Kansas Chamber of Commerce PAC, Club for Growth and other conservative groups to help push conservative challengers past their moderate opponents in many of the state's heated Republican primaries.
Hot button issues
Independent groups have also made major investments in states where controversial issues could be on next session's docket. Following the passage of right-to-work laws in Indiana and collective bargaining restrictions in Wisconsin (since largely put on hold), union leaders are looking to staunch the flow of anti-labor legislation. Among their targets are Republican majorities in Maine and Minnesota.
Charter school supporters helped make the Democratic primary in California's 46th Assembly District one of the priciest in the nation; StudentsFirst spent more than $400,000 on the race and the California Teachers Association countered with over $130,000. StudentsFirst has also been active in Iowa, where it bankrolled ads for Republican candidates for the Senate.
LGBT issues have also prompted a wave of outside spending. As part of an ongoing effort to upend Iowa's same-sex marriage provision, conservative groups in the state have backed a number of GOP Senate bids. In Colorado, LGBT groups are working to unseat three Republican representatives who oppose civil unions.
Low-risk, high reward
Presidential candidates' money hauls are creeping into the billions and congressional battles are waged for multi-millions. Meanwhile, state legislative candidates' revenues are measured in the thousands. Nationwide, the winners of the 2010 state Senate races raised an average of $181,758; their House counterparts averaged just $88,639.
With such relatively small dollar amounts in play and potentially huge payoffs on hot button issues and shifts in party control, investing in state legislative races is a low-risk, high-reward proposition for many outside spenders. High-profile losses by heavily PAC-backed candidates on Tuesday or substantial voter backlash could temper the attractiveness of spending on state races. However, independent groups are unlikely pull out of the state game completely. Barring major campaign finance changes, outside spending in state legislative races is probably here to stay.