National political groups spending big money in legislative races


LITTLE ROCK — Some political insiders suggest frustration with Washington gridlock may have national organizations looking more to the states to push their conservative agenda.

Others say they are driven to share the credit if Republicans sweep Arkansas congressional races and gain control the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

Whatever the reasons, out-of-state groups are pouring big money into Arkansas in the run up to the November general election.

As much as $1 million or more could end up being spent by these national groups in the Natural State, even though Arkansas is not considered a battle ground state in the presidential race. Republican Mitt Romney expected to win handily.

Americans For Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has spent more than $500,000 on state Senate and House races, so far, and the Georgia-based National Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by Christian conservative Ralph Reed, is expected to spend at least $100,000. The coalition has already aired one radio commercial touting Republican Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway against Rep. Linda Tyler, D-Conway, in the Senate District 35 race.

Add what national groups are spending to outlays by the individual candidates and both major parties, and the amount of money being spent on legislative races this year likely will reach several million dollars.

GOP political consultant Bill Vickery attributed the interest that national groups backing Republicans are showing to races in Arkansas and other states this year to an inability by Congress to move forward on their conservative agendas.

“A lot of that is a byproduct of the fact that about eight or 10 years ago, because of things moving so slow ( in Washington), you started seeing these national movements just kind of going state-by-state,” Vickery said last week. “With trying to implement agendas on a state-by-state level … suddenly it wasn’t like in the 80s and 90s of just focusing on the federal races and congressional races.”

Additionally, these groups see Arkansas as ripe for GOP dominance in the general election and may be positioning themselves to share credit should Republicans sweep congressional races and win legislative control for the first time since Reconstruction in Arkansas, the last Democratic stronghold in the South.

“It’s almost like they want to say, ‘hey, we’ve got to get in here and spend some money so on Nov. 7 we can say look what we did,’” said a GOP state legislator who requested anonymity.

In 2010, Republicans won three of four congressional races, captured three state constitutional offices and made significant gains in the Legislature. After decades of dominance, Democrats now hold just bare legislative majorities — 53 of 100 House seats and 20 of 35 Senate seats.

Republican candidates and their backers have worked hard to tie Democrats to the policies of President Obama, who is widely unpopular in the state, and the GOP expects to win control of both chambers this year. Democrats say they expect at least to maintain the majorities they have now, if not expand them.

AFP state director Teresa Oelke said last week that the organization, which is active in all 50 states advocating lower taxes, smaller government and opposition to the federal health care reform law know as Obamacare, likely has spent more than $1 million in Arkansas over a two-year period.

About $500,000 has gone directly to about 30 state legislative races, she said, for both mailers and telephone calls to inform voters on specific issues, such as jobs or taxes in a particular districts.

The actual amount AFP spends, though, may never be disclosed because as a 501(c)(4)s or c4s nonprofit organization, it is exempt from revealing specifics about how it spends money. Because the organization focuses on issues rather than advocating for or against a particular candidate, it does not have to file campaign spending forms.

“Our long-term goal as an organization is to advocate and advance economic freedom, and these are the individuals that have voted or will be voting on the issues,” Oelke said. “We believe it enhances our ability to enhance policy long term.”

Mailers suggesting that some sitting lawmakers support tax increases because they supported referring a proposed sales tax increase for highway improvements to voters, or that some support Obamacare because they voted for a measure that would allow the state to seek grant funding for a health care insurance exchange, have been an almost weekly occurrence in a number of competitive legislative races across the state.

Among others, AFP mailers have flooded mailboxes in Senate District 34, where Rep. Barry Hyde, D-North Little Rock, faces Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and Senate District 19, where Sen. David Wyatt, D-Batesville, faces Rep. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas.

House races where AFP has been involved include District 10 the race between Democrat Mike Holcomb of Pine Bluff and Republican Charles Roberts of Rison; District 13 between Democratic David Hillman of Almyra and Republican Garland Derden Jr. of Stuttgart; District 35 between Rep. Jon Hubbard, R-Jonesboro, and Democrat Copenhaver of Jonesboro; District 41 between Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood and Republican Alan Pogue of Sherwood; and District 59 between Democrat Butch Wilkins of Bono and Republican John Cooper of Jonesboro.

AFP also recently aired a television ad that Gov. Mike Beebe said “trashed” the state. The ad, which did not target any candidate or political party but said “state government debt, higher taxes and the everyday cost of living are slowly eroding opportunities for all Arkansas’ and said “economic freedom’ is imperative to the state.”

Beebe has panned the ad in recent speeches as well as in his weekly radio address last week.

How often does he mention it?

“No more than two or three times a day,” he told the Arkansas News Bureau. “I mean, it’s offensive to Arkansans. I took offense and I think most Arkansans took offense.”

Gary Marx, national director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said last week the organization expects to spend $100,000 or more on the 4th District congressional race and in some state Senate races within the 4th District boundaries. Republican Tom Cotton of Dardanelle faces Democratic state Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann in the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott.

The organization recently sponsored a radio ad in one of the most most expensive and most watched state Senate races in the state, the District 35 races between GOP Sen. Jason Rapert and Democratic Rep. Linda Tyler, both of Conway. District 35 covers parts of Faulkner and Perry counties.

Like AFP, the Faith and Freedom Coalition is a nonprofit c-4-s and does not have to file campaign finance reports.

“There are still a lot of opportunities for us to make decisions with mail, with text messaging, with phone calls, and with radio,” Marx said, declining to say which legislative races the group is targeting.

Rapert has raised $186,400 and spent $81,270, according to campaign contribution and expenditure reports filed in September. Tyler has raised $122,560 and spent $75,450, according to the reports.

An influx of out-of-state money aiding Republicans prompted formation earlier this year of the Naturally Blue PAC to raise money for Democrats targeted by the national groups.

In a news release announcing its efforts in support of Copenhaver’s House campaign, Nate Looney, president and board chairman of Naturally Blue charged that “a number of out-of-state groups … are trying to buy local races in Arkansas.”

Naturally Blue said it planned a statewide phone bank Tuesday to raise more funds for Copenhaver’s campaign.