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Build Up State Parties

One of the most important electoral trends of the last generation is the nationalization of state politics. Whereas state elections used to be fought on their own terms—Democratic state legislators could regularly win in districts that voted for Republican presidential candidates, and GOP governors could win in states that gave their electoral college votes to the Democrats—the steady rise in straight-ticket voting (driven in part by voters’ increasing antipathy toward the opposing party) means that, to quote a recent political science paper, “all politics is national.” The once-robust distinction between state and national politics is collapsing.

One cause (and consequence) of this trend is the deterioration of state-level political parties. In an in-depth report for Brookings, Raymond La Raja and Jonathan Rauch argue that state parties are weaker than ever before, in large part because of the legacy of McCain-Feingold (the 2002 campaign finance overhaul), which turned them into “the most regulated entities in campaign finance.” A number of party officials interviewed in the Brookings report echoed this sentiment:

• “We believe we are fighting for our lives in the current legal and judicial framework, and the super PACs and c(4)s [outside groups] really present a direct threat to the state parties’ existence” (southern Republican)

• “I think the state parties will continue to decline because of all the legal restraints we have unless people really concentrate on how to strengthen them” (southern Democrat)

• “The internal conversation we’ve been having is, how do we keep state parties alive? Campaign-finance reform has hurt us to the point where we’re almost disabled in many states” (mountain Democrat)

The fixes La Raja and Rauch offer—specifically, lifting contribution limits for state parties and softening some regulatory and reporting barriers—deserve a careful look from policymakers. At a time when the agendas of both major parties seem stale, institutional party’s agendas seem stale—and, indeed, when one of those parties may be undergoing an historic realignment—we should be doing everything we can to encourage sub-national political innovation. Strong state parties are an excellent vehicle for Republican and Democratic politicians at the state level to try new policies, and build new coalitions, without the constraints imposed on them by their national brands. Federalism has always been one of our nation’s greatest assets; perhaps it can help lead us out of this current period of political discontent.

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  • Kevin

    I agree – this is just another facet of the centralization of political life in Washington DC.

    Ironicaly, state regulations have also driven this process. Many states have much tighter regulations on state party fundraising that the national parties, committees (NRSC, NRCC, DCCC and DSCC) and candidates do not face. California is an example of this with its own set of regulations which sit over national level ones.

  • rheddles

    Federalism has always been one of our nation’s greatest assets

    The centralizers have concentrated power in Washington for the last 80 years. The federalists never devolve power when they get control because they like power too. So power will continue to accrete in Washington. There is diminishing need to vie for power in states with diminishing power.

  • WigWag

    Actually the state parties are being killed by the same phenomenon that’s destroying the DNC and the RNC. The major villain is the Citizens United decision. Neither the state parties nor the national committees can compete with the super PACs in the race for funding.

    In the old days, rich Democrats like Soros and rich Republicans like the Koch brothers supported the national and state party apparatus of their choice. While they still do, it’s no longer their priority. The PACs they created now do most of what the state and national parties used to do. Not only do they create their own political commercials, they do their own polling, they organize their own get out the vote operations, they run their own social media campaigns and they maintain fundraising databases that are far more sophisticated than anything run by the parties.

    If you were to ask RNC chair Reince Priebus or DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, if they were being honest, they would tell you that they hate super PACs. The reason is simple; they just can’t compete.

    Pining for reinvigorated state parties or for a more robust RNC and DNC is a fools errand; the apparatus of both political parties will never be what they once were.

    If you want to blame someone; blame the Supreme Court or, more specifically the five conservative justices who gave us Citizens United.

    • Fat_Man

      Citizens United was absolutely correct. The problem is not Citizens United it is that all forms of campaign regulation are a violation of first Amendment rights.

      • WigWag

        I’ve got nothing against Citizens United but it’s a major factor in killing the state parties (and the DNC and RNC) which is what the post is about.

        • Fat_Man

          No it isn’t it is the entire regulatory apparatus, state and Federal. CU only voided one regulation. It is the rest of them that need to go.

        • f1b0nacc1

          The rise of rapid, distributed communications that doesn’t involve very high overheads ( solicitations and instant messaging/texting/twitter) have done far, far more damage to the parties than Citizen’s United because they have acted as disintermediaries which undercut the party’s basis for existence. Why would the Koch’s, for instance, send their money through a group of largely corrupt (and often incompetent) middlemen when it is far easier now to route it directly to where it should go for best effect? When you no longer need to have a large complex infrastructure in place in order to raise/distribute money, the parties no longer have a stick to enforce compliance with their diktats.

          If you want to revive the parties (not sure I do, but I am willing to listen), the solution is for them to represent something other than the interests of a few big donors and the pundit/consultant class. Since this is difficult, and someone unlikely, I wouldn’t bet on it.

          • WigWag

            You’re absolutely right; both the state party organizations and the national party organizations have been rendered less relevant by the social media revolution. But I think it goes beyond that.

            State party organizations are governed primarily by local party volunteers, local activists and politicians. The reality is that the people who are in charge of the state parties are not the same people who provide financial support for the state parties.

            We see the same thing at the level of the DNC and the RNC. Under federal law a donor can donate $25,000 to a political party (twice that for a husband and wife) which is more than ten times the amount that can legally be donated to a candidate for federal office.

            The donor class used to generously support the state parties and the federal parties. More recently, the donor class has collectively made the decision that they are less interested in giving money to political entities that they don’t control. They would rather make contributions to Super PACs that they run themselves (along with their wealthy friends) and to which they can donate unlimited amounts to.

            That’s why state parties will never be powerful again and it’s why Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz in their heart of hearts, hate Super PACs, including the ones that support their own candidates.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I suspect that we are saying the same thing here….
            The donor class is more agenda-driven, and thus are willing to support organizations that advance their preferred agendas, while the parties are more institutionally driven, i.e. their priorities are supporting the party organization and the people who work for them. Hence as people can donate more, they tend to give to organizations that will advance their preferred goals, rather than continue to keep the members of the party hierarchy employed.
            This becomes more serious at the higher (greater aggregation) levels of both parties, since the sheer complexities of the agendas at stake mean that individual donors are more likely to find it more appealing to give to single (or at least narrow) focus groups, rather than ‘big tent’ political parties. As an example, if you are a libertarian (such as the Kochs), you are a whole lot less interested in the GOP, which includes a lot of social conservatives who are anathema to them.
            The Democrats have been a bit better at keeping things together because of the ‘dynasty’ aspect of their leadership, but this has begun to break down in the most recent election cycle, and has long been in decay at the state and local level. Both parties though, are facing the same problem….as they grow more complex, they have too many divergent interests to be effectively corralled once technology makes it possible for them to go elsewhere.

  • rheddles

    Citizens United says people have free speech rights. Campaign finance laws control how to contribute to parties. Get rid of the laws and the parties will prosper, although now that the laws, not Citizens United, have created Super PACS, they may be hard to kill off.

  • Jim__L

    All *politics* is national because all *power* is national. Reduce the scope of the Federal government, and State functions will fill in the power vacuum.

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