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How Dark Money Helped Republicans Hold the House

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Posted on Dec 23, 2012
Flickr/Andy Withers

By Olga Pierce, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica

The following piece first appeared on ProPublica.

In the November election, a million more Americans voted for Democrats seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives than Republicans. But that popular vote advantage did not result in control of the chamber. Instead, despite getting fewer votes, Republicans have maintained a commanding control of the House. Such a disparity has happened only three times in the last century.

(Here’s a chart comparing 2010 and 2012.)

Analysts and others have identified redistricting as a key to the disparity. Republicans had a years-long strategy of winning state houses in order to control each state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. (Confused about redistricting? Check out our song.)

Republican strategist Karl Rove laid out the approach in a Wall Street Journal column in early 2010 headlined “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”

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The approach paid off. In 2010 state races, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining complete control of 12 state legislatures. As a result, the GOP oversaw redrawing of lines for four times as many congressional districts as Democrats.

How did they dominate redistricting? A ProPublica investigation has found that the GOP relied on opaque nonprofits funded by dark money, supposedly nonpartisan campaign outfits, and millions in corporate donations to achieve Republican-friendly maps throughout the country. Two tobacco giants, Altria and Reynolds, each pitched in more than $1 million to the main Republican redistricting group, as did Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads; Walmart and the pharmaceutical industry also contributed. Other donors, who gave to the nonprofits Republicans created, may never have to be disclosed.

While many observers have noted that mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson backed losing candidates, a close look at the Republicans’ effort on redistricting suggests something else: The hundreds of millions spent this year on presidential TV ads may not have hit the mark, but the relatively modest sums funneled to redistricting paid off handsomely.

Where Democrats were in control, they drew gerrymandered maps just like Republicans. They also had their own secretive redistricting funding. (Last year, we detailed how Democrats in California worked to undermine the state’s attempt at non-partisan redistricting.) But Democrats got outspent 3-to-1 and did not prioritize winning state legislatures. They also faced a Republican surge in 2010.

Exactly how the Republican effort worked has been shrouded in mystery until now. But depositions and other documents in a little-noticed lawsuit in North Carolina offer an exceptionally detailed picture of Republicans’ tactics.

Documents show that national Republican operatives, funded by dark money groups, drew the crucial lines which packed as many Democrats as possible into three congressional districts. The result: the state’s congressional delegation flipped from 7-6 Democratic to 9-4 in favor of Republicans. The combination of party operatives, cash and secrecy also existed in other states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

Redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote. As demographics change, lines are shifted to make sure everyone is equally represented and to give communities a voice. In order for Republicans to win in North Carolina, they undermined the votes of Democrats, especially African-Americans. (Party leaders in North Carolina say they were simply complying with federal voting laws.)

The strategy began in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Republicans poured money into local races in North Carolina and elsewhere. It was an efficient approach. While congressional races routinely cost millions, a few thousand dollars can swing a campaign for a seat in the state legislature

The Republican effort to influence redistricting overall was spearheaded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has existed since 2002. For most of that time, it was primarily a vehicle for donors like health care and tobacco companies to influence state legislatures, key battlegrounds for regulations that affect corporate America. Its focus changed in 2010 when Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, was named chairman. His main project: redistricting.

Soon after Gillespie took over, the RSLC announced an effort to influence state races throughout the country, the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP. Fundraising soared. The group raised $30 million in 2010, by far its best year. (Its Democratic counterpart raised roughly $10 million.)

The RSLC is organized as a type of political group that can take in unlimited corporate donations. It must disclose its contributors. But that doesn’t mean it’s always possible to trace the origins of the money.

Along with Walmart and tobacco companies, the RSLC’s largest funders in 2010 were the Chamber of Commerce and American Justice Partnership, which gave a combined $6.5 million. Those two groups raise money from corporations and others but don’t have to disclose their donors.

As the 2010 North Carolina legislative elections heated up, the RSLC jumped into local races. But the way they made contributions kept their involvement away from the attention of state voters. Rather than running campaign ads under its own name, the RSLC distributed money to a newly formed local nonprofit. The RSLC declined to comment.

The RSLC gave $1.25 million to its vehicle of choice Real Jobs NC. The group calls itself a “non-partisan organization that believes we need to return to a reliance on the free enterprise system that made our country great for real answers.” It was started in 2010 and got a hefty $200,000 boost from dollar store magnate and Republican supporter Art Pope, although Pope denies his donation was related to redistricting or REDMAP.

Real Jobs NC produced ads and mailers slamming more than 20 state Democrats.

“Steve Goss … nice guy,” intoned the voiceover in one such ad in North Carolina, attacking then-Democratic State Senator Goss. “Too bad he’s voting with the Raleigh liberals over hometown conservatives.”

Goss lost, and Democrats lost control of North Carolina’s General Assembly for the first time in a century. The pattern repeated itself across the country.

“Twenty legislative bodies which were previously split or under Democratic control are now under Republican control,” said a triumphant RSLC REDMAP post-election analysis, highlighting its spending in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, among other states.

The next step for Republicans was to draw district maps, which can be expensive. The maps require expertise, extensive data and sophisticated software. Skillful map drawers can make even the most partisan gerrymander look reasonable.


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