In New Mexico’s Statehouse, Jimmie Hall is something of a fixture: The veteran Republican representative has served District 28 in this sun-dried, high-desert city for seven terms.
For much of Hall’s tenure, the district, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains on the eastern edge of Albuquerque, has been reliably conservative, so much so that he’s coasted to victory without having to face any Democratic opponent in his three most recent re-election bids.
But this year is different. In November, Hall will square off against Melanie Stansbury, who is among a slew of young, progressive Democrats running for office at every level of government across the country.
It’s a hyperlocal race to represent about 30,000 New Mexicans. What’s surprising, though, is how much others outside the Land of Enchantment are participating in it. More than one-third of the money the two candidates have raised came from out of state – the latest sign that America is paying attention to what happens even in state legislative districts in a momentous year when so much is at stake.
To fend off Stansbury’s challenge, Hall has stepped up his fundraising game: His war chest of $65,000 is already bigger than what he raised for his bids in 2016 and 2014 combined. Almost a third of it came from out of state.
Still, Stansbury has outperformed her opponent and raised about $124,000, netting almost 40 percent from out-of-state donors.
This level of out-of-state support isn’t unique this year. Nationwide, many Democrats running for state-level offices from governor to state representative are also hauling in a significant amount of donations from across state lines, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Though Democrats still trail Republicans in the overall fundraising tally, they have raised at least $101 million from out of state – about $29 million more than their GOP counterparts have taken in – as part of the newly energized “blue wave.” That’s a far cry from the 2014 elections, when Republicans ended up outraising Democrats by almost $9 million in out-of-state contributions and by $191 million overall.
The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis also found that:
• The majority of money from out of state is going to candidates for governor and lieutenant governor – who often run on the same ticket. Together, they have raised about three-fifths of the more than $173 million from across state lines.
• Three gubernatorial candidates – in Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin – have each raised at least $5.5 million from states other than their own, making up between 18 percent and 50 percent of their campaign funds. Nationwide, out-of-state contributions make up only 10 percent of direct gubernatorial fundraising.
• Democrats running for state legislative seats are relying on a larger pool of out-of-state donors who give in smaller amounts – raising an average of about $640 per donor from more than 64,000 contributors, compared with about $2,200 per donor from more than 13,000 contributors for their GOP counterparts. This gap has widened markedly compared with the same period in the 2010 elections, when an average out-of-state donor gave about $1,030 to Democrats and $1,210 to Republicans.
The influx of out-of-state contributions comes from a mix of companies with local interests, networks of contacts scattered across the country and newly emboldened national groups – on both ends of the ideological spectrum – that are mobilizing to influence state-level elections, mindful that the outcomes will have an impact on politics at the state and national levels lasting well into the next decade.
What happens in November could determine the fate of abortion laws in the states or the future of Medicaid expansion, if the U.S. Supreme Court moves to undercut Roe v. Wade or the Affordable Care Act. And governors and many lawmakers elected this year will still be in office when the results of the 2020 census come back and redrawing of the congressional map begins – a process largely controlled by state legislatures, with many governors holding a veto pen.
With the stakes so high, the growing influence of money from out of state demands closer examination, said Dan Weiner, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for tighter campaign finance rules. Ultimately, he said, it poses fundamental questions about state sovereignty: Who should really have a say in how each state is run?
“It is very troubling to think that people would lose control of their own electoral process,” Weiner said. “It used to be that, at least at the state level, the interests of constituents vastly outweighed any interests coming from elsewhere around the country. But that’s no longer true, to some extent, because of the proliferation of the campaign finance free-for-all.”
In a little-known case out of Alaska, federal courts have been weighing whether the U.S. Constitution allows states to impose limits on out-of-state contributions, an issue that could soon go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, Thompson v. Hebdon, is challenging Alaska’s stringent campaign finance rules that limit how much candidates for state-level offices can raise from out of state.
The case is now pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a lower court upheld the contribution limit.
David Fontana, a law professor at George Washington University, said the case has the potential to reach the Supreme Court, regardless of how the appeals court rules. “This is emerging as a significant – and new enough – constitutional issue that the court might take the case, particularly because they have never fully considered the state self-government issue,” he said.
If Alaska prevails in court, it will likely embolden some states to impose similar limits, said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, an Austin, Texas-based advocacy group that has filed an amicus brief in support of the contribution limit.
Out-of-state contributions to state-level elections this year has already exceeded $173 million, a jump of more than 40 percent from the same period in 2010.
The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis shows that a significant amount of donations from out of state has gone to some of the most competitive gubernatorial races. Topping the chart is the close contest between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican seeking a third term, and Democratic challenger Tony Evers, superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Among candidates for state-level offices, Walker has raised the most from out of state, hauling in about $11.5 million to make up more than half of his campaign funds. Evers, meanwhile, is trailing by some distance: He has managed to raise about $2.5 million, one-fifth of which came from across state lines.
Walker’s and Evers’ campaigns declined to comment.
To be sure, Walker’s and Evers’ fundraising tallies can offer only a partial account of the money influencing Wisconsin politics. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the role of independent political groups has been growing nationwide, with hundreds of millions of dollars being raised and spent to directly influence voters in favor of specific candidates. Such groups can be bastions of out-of-state money that gets doled out to key races from offices around Washington, D.C.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C. For the full story, go to publicintegrity.org.