Republicans have the edge in fundraising leading up to the November midterm elections, bolstered by small donors enthusiastic about President Trump and a stable of billionaires including the Koch Brothers, who just pledged $400 million to help Republicans retain power in Washington and across the country.
The disparity in funding is not unique to this cycle. The Republicans typically have more money. The bigger problem for Democrats is the extraordinary top-to-bottom organization that Republicans have built over time in 30 states while Democrats can point to a similar effort in just three: Colorado, Minnesota, and North Carolina.
“They have built a juggernaut,” says Rob Stein, founder of Democracy Alliance, a progressive group that last year compiled a report on “The Republican-Right’s Iron Curtain of Political Influence” (PDF). It shows how the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Freedom Partners operate like a parallel political party—one that’s often superior to and more effective than the Republican National Committee.
After the Citizens United decision in 2010 allowed donors like the Kochs to give unlimited amounts of money to party building, AFP became the GOP’s outside hub for everything from data analytics to candidate recruitment to get out-the-vote drives. Essentially everything the party once did is now privatized through AFP.
“What the Kochs did is nothing short of historic and the most extraordinary takeover of a party ever in a democracy,” says Stein.
It’s not the wall of money that has Democrats most worried, it’s the organizational skills that AFP has honed. “Democrats can endure having less money if they have strategic management within the states,” says Stein. Key groups for Democrats—Planned Parenthood, labor unions, and environmental groups mostly do their own thing while the right’s nonprofit, nonparty political machine, according to the Democracy Alliance report, “has become the most successful, and most powerful, political machine in American history.”
The major players on the right—the National Rifle Association, the National Association of Independent Business Owners, and the Club for Growth—work closely with AFP, as does the Christian Right and the, American Legislative Exchange Council, which churns out right-leaning legislative policy in almost 40 states.
Democrats welcomed former Attorney General Eric Holder’s list of local races that he and President Obama will be targeting this year with their group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “They are races that people don’t normally think about,” says Scott Anderson, executive director of the Committee on States, a progressive group focused on shifting power back to Democrats in states where Republicans now rule.
The auditor’s race in Ohio is on Holder’s list because the winner of that race has a seat on the state commission that does the gerrymandering. Every state has a different process for how political power is distributed after the census. In North Carolina, for example, the governor has no say in how the districts are drawn. There you need to win a majority in the legislature, says Anderson, and it’s never too early to start. “If you wait until the last three months before an election, it’s like trying to win a baseball game in the 8th and 9th inning.”
Holder’s group is about figuring out what the formula is in each state, and which are the best races to be involved in. As the Supreme Court prepares to weigh in on four redistricting cases, there has been an awakening among the political class that gerrymandering has gone too far. To the victor goes the spoils is now being challenged in courts and on campaign trail, just debated inside the ivory tower.
In the 30 states where Republicans fully control the state legislature, the Democracy Alliance reports reports that they also control chambers, Republicans also have 25 governors, 46 out of 60 U.S. senators, 185 of 252 House members, and control of 23 of the state supreme courts.
That’s a lot of power to leave on the table uncontested. The erosion of Democratic Party politics is not going to be turned around in a single cycle unless the blue wave turns out to be a typhoon.
While there is usually more money on the conservative side, it’s in the management of that money where Republicans excel.
“They are infinitely better at aligning their dollars to assure that the 15 or 20 major groups in each state involved in the election are all working together,” says Stein. “The central role of AFP is to assure every dollar spent is aligned to the maximum extent possible.”
The transformation in funding goes back to the McCain Feingold campaign finance law of 2002 which banned soft money for parties—money that could be used for party-building and not federal candidates—and started the process of soft money finding its way into politics through other groups like AFP. “That was pivotal and the parties never recovered,” says Stein.
As Democrats belatedly undertaking the sort of party-building the Republicans started with AFP decades ago, they hope that Obama coming off the sidelines for down-ballot races and local elections will get voters more aware of the snowballing importance of those contests.
“Money alone in the face of powerful headwinds can’t save their majority,” says Stein. “But just as much as we want to win the House back, AFP wants to hold it. Don’t ever assume we have more passion than the other side. They’re all in too. The 2018 elections are going to be a frantic effort by both sides to maximize voter turnout.”