Things looked good for the Democrats in 2009. Not only had Barack Obama been elected president, but for the first time in 14 years, their party controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Then came the 2010 midterms: In what Obama called a “shellacking,” the Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. While the headlines focused on the Republican takeover of Congress and what it meant for the rest of Obama’s presidency, the most painful losses occurred in the state races down ballot. Before 2010, the Republicans controlled 14 statehouses, and the Democrats held sway in 27. After 2010, the Republicans controlled 25 statehouses and had scored a trifecta—the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature—in 11 states.
In many of these states, what followed was a three-pronged attack—the introduction of model legislation, the deployment of publicity campaigns to promote it, and the use of faux-grassroots actions and demonstrations to rally support for it—that had been decades in the making and helped realize a battery of conservative policy priorities, many aimed at preventing the Democrats from winning back power.
In Wisconsin, for example, one of the first things the newly installed Republican governor, Scott Walker, did was introduce Act 10—which was supposedly intended to address the state’s budget gap but essentially ended collective bargaining rights for public employees and limited their unions’ ability to collect fees. The move sparked massive protests, attended by both public-sector workers and regular citizens. But he had a powerful coalition at his back ready to push the act through, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose model bills provided him with many of the legislation’s provisions; the State Policy Network (SPN), which backed think tanks like the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the MacIver Institute that spread the word in the media; and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group founded by right-wing megadonors Charles and David Koch that bused in hundreds of counterprotesters and bought at least half a million dollars’ worth of ads.
“Between ALEC, SPN, and AFP, then, Walker was buttressed by a ‘longstanding conservative alliance against unions,’ in the words of two New York Times reporters,’ ” writes Alexander Hertel-Fernandez in his new book, State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation. As with similar laws passed in other states, Act 10 was not just an ideological victory for conservatives; it was also a significant political win. With the power of public-sector unions diminished, one of the main forces resisting Republican rule had been eroded. “Do we have less boots on the ground? Yeah,” admitted one public-sector union leader in the state. “Do we give the same amounts of money to the candidates? No.” In the triumphant words of AFP president Tim Phillips, “That’s how you change a state.”
Packed with wonky and original data analysis, State Capture tells the grim story of how ALEC, SPN, and AFP became a well-honed “right-wing troika” that amassed conservative power, providing valuable insight into the operations of three shadowy groups that have profoundly shaped every American’s life—and have done so not from the White House but via state governments.
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Back in the 1960s and ’70s, it was the left, not the right, that focused on state power. With the exception of two years, Democrats controlled the majority of state legislatures from 1960 to 1973. Public-sector unions like the National Education Association were their wingmen, functioning much as ALEC does today, albeit with very different political concerns. Teachers’ unions drafted model legislation that they spread across states—and not just on education-related issues but on broader ones concerning state budgets, union rights, and even equal pay.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, the right decided to develop a countervailing movement. ALEC, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and a group of conservative activists and officials with funding from longtime conservative donor Richard Scaife’s foundation, was one of the first to begin this work. “Conservatism is weakest at the local level,” warned a onetime executive director of ALEC. “Government at the state and local level is still overwhelmingly controlled by liberals, in large part because conservatives have concentrated too much of their attention and energy on Washington.”
A 1994 ALEC pamphlet for potential corporate members noted that “many businesses focus their government affairs efforts on Washington, DC, believing that the only important government action takes place at the national level. This is a flawed strategy.” Gridlock and budget issues had caused Congress to stagnate, the pamphlet read. “In contrast, state legislatures have become increasingly activist on a wide range of issues.”
ALEC’s early leaders—including familiar names like former governors Terry Branstad of Iowa, John Kasich of Ohio, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin—were particularly concerned about the power that public-sector unions wielded in state governments and how it allowed them to hinder not only specific conservative policies but also Republican Party organizing. So ALEC began to develop model legislation that didn’t simply advance particular policy objectives but also helped weaken the left’s and organized labor’s power.
Republicans at the federal level quickly realized the potency of what ALEC was doing. After Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, many people in his administration with close ties to the organization integrated the council’s focus on states into their work in the federal government. “Far from abandoning the states after gaining control of the White House, conservatives in the Reagan administration used the formal authority—and also the trappings of their office—to encourage cross-state organizing through ALEC,” Hertel-Fernandez notes. Indeed, “Republican White Houses…worked closely with ALEC to build the group’s membership and coordinate on policy initiatives.”
The SPN followed, founded in 1986 by a network of state-level think tanks. By the early 2000s, the Koch brothers also wanted to jump into state policy lobbying and founded Americans for Prosperity. These groups made only modest gains at first, but by the early 21st century they had mastered their three-pronged approach for taking advantage of a key weakness of state legislatures: The representatives in these bodies often work as legislators part-time and with scant, underresourced staffs, so they readily turn to outside experts and operatives to fill in the gaps. ALEC does most of the policy-drafting work, but its model bills benefit from the research and publicity provided by the SPN’s think tanks, while AFP supplies the boots on the ground to stage rallies, contact elected officials, and talk to the media in support of particular legislation.
These efforts have paid off handsomely. Though ALEC struggled in the 1970s and ’80s, by 2002 its membership included nearly a third of all state legislators, and it has seen hundreds of its model bills introduced and passed—at a higher rate than is typical for state legislation.
Thus, when Republicans swept the legislatures in 2010, the troika was ready to act. Its agenda included not just an attack on public-sector union rights but also cuts to unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Medicaid. It also sought to undermine the recently passed Affordable Care Act, restrict women’s reproductive rights, expand access to guns, and lower taxes on corporations and the rich. “What made the 2010 state legislative transition so striking was the speed with which states began introducing and enacting a near-identical set of very conservative policy priorities,” Hertel-Fernandez writes.
State Capture focuses on the powerful conservative groups that have emerged since the 1970s, but it also discusses the progressive organizations that have attempted to counter them. However, most of these arrived on the scene too late and never developed enough strength to mount an effective opposition. Out of the 10 state-level liberal groups created to push back against ALEC, only five exist today. “The history of progressive state networks…might best be characterized by repeated cycles of panic,” Hertel-Fernandez writes. These networks turned their attention to the states after suffering losses during George W. Bush’s presidency but abandoned much of those efforts once Obama won the White House. It wasn’t until the midterm losses of 2010 that a sense of urgency was reignited, but it may have been too late. In 2014 and 2016, the Republicans continued to flip state seats while the Democrats lagged. By 2017, the GOP had won control of the legislature and governorship in states that it had long been unable to wrest from Democrats—for example, Iowa, where Branstad and a statehouse stacked with longtime ALEC members immediately got to work challenging public-sector union rights.
The hobbling of public-sector unions is one reason that it has become difficult for the left to fight back—which was always the intention. By going after these unions, Republicans have sought to deprive “the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues,” as a recent SPN report noted, while clearing “pathways toward passage of so many other pro-freedom initiatives in the states.”
Wisconsin is a model for this dual ideological and practical focus on dismantling public-sector unions. In the wake of Act 10’s passage, membership fell by more than 50 percent, desiccating the unions’ budgets and leading to a steep decline in their political spending and ability to resist the other legislation that Walker and other state Republicans sought to pass. But Wisconsin is hardly an isolated example. After the 2010 red wave, 13 legislatures passed laws attacking public-sector unions, including in historically moderate states like Illinois and Pennsylvania, and particularly in states with a more entrenched troika presence. As in Wisconsin, these laws had the intended twofer effect of notching an ideological victory and decimating a powerful opponent. Before such legislation passed, employees of state and local governments reported “engaging in nearly twice as many civic acts compared to private-sector workers,” Hertel-Fernandez writes; after it was enacted, participation fell by nearly a third. This hurt the Democratic Party at the voting booth, enabling the GOP to further consolidate its hold on power.
So what is to be done? Professionalizing state legislatures—turning them into full-time governmental bodies filled with well-compensated lawmakers and adequate staffs—could reduce the need for the troika’s offerings. Democrats also need to go back to basics. Conservatives haven’t just been smart about building a state-level policy infrastructure; they’ve also concentrated on winning elections and flipping legislatures, which has paid off for them, given that legislatures under full Republican control are more than twice as likely to enact ALEC’s model legislation.
But the key, Hertel-Fernandez writes, is “investing in the creation of cross-state networks that can counter the troika on its own terrain.” Just as ALEC was founded in the 1970s in response to the National Education Association’s success, progressives need to mount their own coordinated, sustained counterattack. Hertel-Fernandez argues that the left already has more resources available than the right; the problem is that it so rarely directs them to state-level campaigns. “Between large center-left foundations, unions, and wealthy individual donors,” he writes, “all the liberal groups had a pool of resources just under $4 billion” in 2014, compared with $2 billion total for conservative groups. More of that $4 billion needs to be put to work at the state level.
With the 2020 elections looming, State Capture serves as a powerful warning that Democrats will have to do more than just win the White House again. The party did make some progress in the 2018 midterms—seizing control of seven state legislative chambers, flipping seven governorships, and winning the trifecta in 14 states versus its earlier eight—but there is much more work to be done.
“If progressives are going to build sustained cross-state power, then they need to pay attention to the states even when they have control of the federal government,” Hertel-Fernandez argues. “Otherwise, they will be forced to start all over again the next time that they inevitably lose a chamber of Congress or the White House.”