TIME Campaign Finance

How National Kingmakers Flooded State Elections With Cash

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives the annual State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2015 in Trenton, New Jersey.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during his State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2015 in Trenton, New Jersey.

The top 50 contributors spent more than $440 million in 2014 races.

If money is influence, the Republican Governors Association wielded more of it than anyone else last year in state elections nationwide.

The group, led in 2014 by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, gave roughly $69 million to candidates, political parties and independent groups — more than double its Democratic counterpart — as it tried to elect Republicans to the top office in as many states as possible. The group gave more than any other donor to state-level elections last year — from races for governor to legislator to supreme court justice.

The association applied an effective strategy that’s becoming more common: giving money using multiple paths to circumvent limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties, a Center for Public Integrity analysis has found.

In addition to the money it spent directly on TV ads and other campaign efforts, the group gave about $14 million to candidates including Illinois’ new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also gave more than $3 million to state parties, including those in Texas and Maine.

The bulk of the checks it wrote, however, totaling about $50 million, went to other political groups that in turn spent the money on state races.

Its efforts largely paid off. Republicans gained four governorships in 2014 and only lost two, leaving them holding the reins in 31 states.

The group “was designed to supplement what candidates could do on their own in the states,” said Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor who turned the association into a powerhouse in the mid-1980s. “Obviously, it’s grown beyond that.”

Its competitor, the Democratic Governors Association, gave $32 million and ranked second among the sugar daddies of 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis. The group only picked up one new governor’s mansion, with Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf defeating incumbent Republican Tom Corbett. (Alaska’s Republican incumbent was beaten by an independent, Bill Walker.)

Together, the two governors’ groups and other national political organizations gave significantly more than political parties, unions, multimillionaires or corporations that also contributed heavily to influence state-level campaigns. The donations went beyond races for governor. The funds made their way into lower-ballot contests such as attorney general, state supreme court justice and state legislator.

The national groups also cropped up on the lists of the biggest donors in most states, outgiving homegrown political players in a sign that all politics may now be national.

In all, the top 50 political givers spread more than $440 million to the people and groups pushing candidates for state office, the Center for Public Integrity found. The list is thick with billionaires such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and corporations such as telecom titan AT&T Inc.

They also were more successful in backing winners than most donors, becoming the de facto kingmakers of state politics.

“It’s an amazing amount of power concentrated in a handful of organizations,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics that collected some of the data used for the analysis. “If people want to understand why government is dysfunctional, you don’t have to look much farther than this list.”

The Citizens United effect

To identify the kingmakers, the Center for Public Integrity looked at donations given to 2014 state candidates and political parties during 2013 and 2014, as tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Reporters also collected state and federal contribution records for 140 independent organizations that aired political TV ads during 2014 state elections.

Related: Meet the Top 50 Donors Who Influenced State Elections

The analysis does not include funders of groups that don’t disclose their donors to any state or federal agencies — so-called “dark money” groups. And it does not total overall contributions, because some donors received money from other donors on the list. [More details on the methodology.]

The findings paint a picture of independent groups playing a bigger role in financing state-level elections than even political parties or the candidates’ campaigns, one effect of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The 2010 ruling allowed many groups to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and wealthy patrons to influence elections as long as they did not coordinate with the candidates. Thus, they could bypass limits on giving to a candidate or political party and leapfrog ahead.

The top 50 donors identified by the Center for Public Integrity gave more than 40 percent of their contributions to independent political groups, surpassing what they gave to either candidates or political parties.

The strategy allows donors to multiply their influence, said Larry Noble, former general counsel of the FEC who now works as an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center.

“You give the maximum to the candidates, but then you want to give more,” he said. “You give to the party committee that’s also going to support the candidate. You give to outside groups that are also going to support the candidate.”

The mega-donors thus control more of the political messages that determine which issues are central to the campaign — roles previously played by candidates and political parties. And in exchange, they may expect the newly elected officials to dance with the ones that brought them.

Behind the curtain

National political groups have their own heavy-hitting donors. But because the groups function as the middlemen of political giving, voters often don’t know the original source of the cash behind a politician’s election.

The Republican Governors Association, for one, served as a conduit for billionaires and corporations looking to influence governors’ races.

The five largest contributors behind the group’s gargantuan giving power all appear separately on the Center for Public Integrity’s top 50 donor list: Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; billionaire David Koch, who runs the Kansas-based Koch Industries with his brother; electricity giant Duke Energy; investment firm ETC Capital, whose founder, Manoj Bhargava, also founded the company behind the 5-Hour Energy drink; and billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, according to IRS records from 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile, four of the five largest contributors to the counterpart Democratic Governors Association were also familiar names from the top 50 list: Michael Bloomberg and branches of three labor unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

The Republican and Democratic governors’ associations employ another common strategy that both amplifies and obfuscates their giving: contributing to “an outside group with a good-sounding name” to make support of a candidate look more diverse and to help attract different constituencies, Noble said.

For example, state records collected by the Center for Public Integrity show that the Democratic Governors Association gave more than $6 million to a group called Making Colorado Great, while the Republican Governors Association gave nearly $5.5 million to Grow Connecticut. The Colorado and Connecticut organizations then spent millions airing TV ads in their states’ respective gubernatorial contests.

“It’s name branding,” Noble said. “If you were a teacher and you see an ad from a teachers union, you’re going to give it a lot more credibility than an ad from the DGA.”

Diverse giving becomes trendy

All but a handful of the top 50 mega-donors used more than one avenue to spread their gifts. And most gave money to influence races in more than one state.

Billionaire hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin, for example, gave more than $4.6 million before the election to the campaign committee of Rauner, the Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Worth about $5.5 billion, according to Forbes, Griffin and his soon-to-be ex-wife Anne also gave at least $2.2 million to independent political groups that backed state candidates, such as the Republican Governors Association, and more than $500,000 to state GOP parties in Illinois and Florida.

A representative for Griffin declined to comment.

Some of the top donors also gave widely. Sixteen of the top 50 contributors gave to 50 or more state-level candidates running in 2014.

Getting what they paid for

Nearly 85 percent of the candidates backed directly by the top 50 donors won their elections in 2014, a far better success rate than the typical political contributor, who backed winners only 52 percent of the time.

Duke Energy, for example, had a 94 percent success rate after supporting 381 different candidates.

For corporations, in particular, political giving is a way to ensure a seat at the table once a lawmaker is elected, said Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt. Giving across the aisle improves their odds of having an ally in office come January.

“They’ll give to the incumbent and also the challenger just in case the challenger wins,” Levitt said. “They’ll give more to leadership positions because leadership positions are gateways to access for committees, for legislation, for broader regulation.”

Mass media giant Comcast picked winners in 93 percent of the more than 1,000 candidates it backed. It gave nearly $1.7 million directly to candidates, spreading it widely in 36 states.

“The contributions that the company makes are because we operate in a highly regulated industry,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice, adding that most candidates backed are incumbents. “The decisions that are made by legislatures control our business.”

In addition to its national giving, the Philadelphia-based Comcast gave heavily in its home state. Top recipients were Gov. Tom Corbett and running mate Jim Cawley, both Republicans, who together raked in $107,000 from the state’s top broadband provider but lost re-election. Hedging its bet, Comcast also gave $1,000 to Wolf, who won the governorship from Corbett.

Duke Energy, another company regulated by states, divvied up more than $500,000 among the hundreds of candidates it backed, many of whom ran for office in North Carolina, where the company is headquartered.

Additionally, the electric utility donated more than $210,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Duke Energy may have been trying to boost its support in the Sunshine State, where it has faced massive criticism for charging customer fees for nuclear plants that do not — and may never — provide power. Florida’s governor and legislature are responsible for naming the members of the commission that regulates the utility and allows such fees.

“We do not make contribution decisions on single issues,” Duke Energy spokesman Chad Eaton said. “Our employee-led PAC considers an array of issues before any decisions are made.”

In general, he said, Duke Energy donates to candidates who demonstrate “support for public policy issues that are important to our business, customers and communities” in the six states where it provides electricity.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, meanwhile, gave nearly $2.7 million to 568 candidates in 34 states and had a 64 percent win rate. It contributed more than half million dollars to Democrat Pat Quinn’s failed bid to retain the Illinois governorship, but saw more success with the $410,000 it gave to Wolf’s successful run for governor in Pennsylvania. In both states, the Republican opposition had supported scaling back public pensions or preventing unions from deducting union dues directly from members’ paychecks.

Money does not always guarantee a win, of course, and a lack of funds doesn’t necessarily foretell a loss.

In Maryland’s governor’s race, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, outraised Republican Larry Hogan several times over yet lost in one of the biggest upsets of election night. Brown was hurt by low popularity ratings that no giant war chest could fix, according to Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. And because Hogan accepted public funds for his campaign, he was limited on how much money he could spend yet also freed up to spend time on the campaign trail, not the fundraising one.

And some of the top benefactors saw little return on their campaign investments.

Billionaire physicist Charles Munger Jr., son of the Berkshire Hathaway executive of the same name, gave nearly $300,000 to 45 Republican candidates in 2014. Only 13 won for a 29 percent success rate.

The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, also fared poorly when backing candidates directly — only three of their 13 candidates won.

Allies in office

Most of the more than 6,300 state officials elected in November began work this month, shaping and creating policy across the country in 50 governors’ mansions and 99 legislative chambers — 11 of which flipped from Democratic to Republican control in the 2014 election.

For some big donors, that means the candidates they backed can now fight for their causes in state office. Or they might just be more willing to take a phone call from a benefactor who has a legislative wish list.

Noble said candidates typically know which donors they have to thank for their success — even when patrons filter their donations through independent groups.

And now, for some top givers, the real campaigning is about to begin.

Rauner, the newly sworn-in Republican governor, for one, is already gearing up for battles with the veto-proof Democratic-controlled legislature in Illinois as he pushes his stated goals of plugging the state’s budget deficit and strengthening ethics laws. He isn’t just counting on good will or smooth talking to win over potentially reluctant legislators. He’s counting on cold, hard cash to help make the case.

Rauner and two top donors, Griffin and shipping supply magnate Richard Uihlein, poured $20 million into the governor’s campaign committee in the final two days of 2014, which Rauner reportedly plans to use to back other candidates who support his policies.

Rauner’s new war chest will enable the new governor to be in a state of “perpetual campaign” — to air commercials aimed at persuading state legislators or to donate to other lawmakers’ re-election campaigns in exchange for support of Rauner’s agenda, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

In the past, a governor might have promised state legislators financial backing for development projects in their districts or helped them acquire contracts or new jobs.

“Instead of building somebody a playground in the school, he’ll be able to donate money to their campaign,” Mooney said.

And if they don’t do want he wants? “He’ll be able to fund an opponent,” he said.

TIME 2014 elections

Secretive Nonprofits Spent Millions on State Election Ads

Nonprofits spent nearly $25 million on ads, but who was behind the money is hard to say

Sandra Kennedy expected a tough race this fall for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission, but the Democrat didn’t expect to get socked with a $1.4 million onslaught of TV ads from a mysterious group that dredged up a past legal dispute.

The race for a seat on the commission to regulate utilities and other businesses rarely attracts campaign ads. Kennedy herself hadn’t purchased any. The group called Save Our Future Now, however, flooded the state’s airwaves with ads running nearly 1,400 times.

“Times are tough in Arizona, but Sandra Kennedy voted to hurt Arizona families. Kennedy voted for higher sales taxes, but she didn’t even pay her own bills,” one ad said. “Kennedy owned a restaurant chain and didn’t pay the rent.”

The ad referenced a royalty infringement suit involving Kennedy and restaurant chain Denny’s Inc. over a franchise that she and her husband owned. Both parties dismissed the case in 2010.

“It was devastating,” Kennedy said of the ads. “Unbelievable.”

State and federal law do not require the group to publicly disclose its funders because such politicking is not the group’s “primary purpose.” So it’s nearly impossible for Kennedy or other Arizonans to prove who funded the attack ads that helped lead to her loss in November. The group did not respond to the Center for Public Integrity for comment.

Save Our Future Now is just one of 40 nonprofit groups that together spent an estimated $25 million to buy TV ads about 2014 state-level elections while keeping their donors secret, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

That’s a small piece of the more than $850 million spent on TV ads in all state elections overall in the 2014 cycle. However, the number of ads from such groups — and the proportion they made up in political advertising for state contests — nearly doubled from levels in 2010, the last year in which a comparable number of state-level offices were in play.

Such groups often appeared to have outsized influence on races from governor down to state senator this cycle. Most of them were successful, far more so than independent political groups overall: these secretive nonprofits either backed a winning candidate or, in the majority of cases, bashed the loser in 62 percent of the races in which they sponsored TV ads tracked by Kantar Media/CMAG. By comparison, all independent groups, including those that disclose their donors, were successful just under 50 percent of the time.

And overall 51 percent of election advertisers, including candidates and political parties, on the state level were successful, according to the Center’s analysis.

Citizens United’s impact

In 24 states including Arizona — where nearly one out of every seven ads was sponsored by such entities — these mysterious groups were boosted by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The high court’s 5-4 decision freed corporations and unions to spend limitlessly to directly advocate for the victory or defeat of candidates.

The ruling unleashed a wave of “social welfare” nonprofit corporations, which are supposed to spend the majority of the donations they receive to promote “social welfare,” not politics.

Attempts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these tax-exempt groups called 501(c)(4)s — and allegations that the agency targeted conservative groups with its audits — resulted in the 2013 resignation of Lois Lerner, the director of that portion of the IRS.

To be sure, such “social welfare” nonprofits are not the only groups that sometimes can keep their donors secret. Lax disclosure rules in some states allow other types of groups to avoid registering with state election boards at all.

Or sometimes groups can hide their donors from voters with lags in filing deadlines. In Kansas, a state where a tight governor’s race attracted more ads from such mysterious groups than in any other state, a different kind of nonprofit called Alliance for a Free Society Inc., ran ads against Democratic nominee Paul Davis, who lost to incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The group incorporated in Delaware only in July, so detailed information about its leadership, lobbying and political activity will not be released by the IRS until 2015 — months after Kansas voters saw the anti-Davis ads and cast ballots. Michael K. Morgan, a top government affairs consultant to Koch Industries who runs the group, declined to be interviewed by the Center on the record.

Some conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued that keeping donors secret is constitutionally protected anonymous political speech.

These groups lend a “comfort level” to individual and corporate donors who want to influence state politics without giving up their identity, according to David Vance, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter campaign finance regulation.

“The 501(c)(4)s and the 501(c)(6)s represent a way for anyone, but particularly corporations, to kind of fly under the radar and make an impact,” said Vance, referencing the sections of the Internal Revenue Code that regulate politically active nonprofits. “They can have a lot more impact at the state level than on the federal level.”

Cease and desist

In Wisconsin, where a competitive gubernatorial race helped attract more than $4 million dollars in ads from such politically active nonprofits, two groups spent more than $350,000 combined attacking Penny Bernard Schaber, a 61-year-old physical therapist and longtime Democratic assemblywoman running for state Senate.

The ads started early, just after Labor Day, and painted her as a tax-and-spend liberal. They claimed that she took a pay raise while raising taxes for others.

Bernard Schaber sent a cease-and-desist letter to local TV stations demanding that they stop airing the ads because they were “factually untrue.” A legislative committee had voted to raise legislators’ pay to $49,943 before she was elected; her pay never rose while she was in office.

But the groups countered that the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper first published the statements in an editorial, noting that some legislators had declined to accept the increase. The ads continued.

The two organizations that paid for the ads, which ran nearly 750 times, were theWisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council and the First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund.

Because the ads didn’t specifically advocate for Bernard Schaber’s defeat, the groups didn’t have to disclose what they had spent — or the source of their funding — to the state’s ethics board, which regulates campaign finance.

The Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council is a state-based group that is affiliated with the state chamber of commerce.

The First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund, though, is a Virginia-based group that ran ads within Wisconsin only on her race. It says on its website it is “dedicated to educating Americans on transparency, waste, fraud, hypocrisy and best practices at all levels of government.” Its donors, and its interest in Wisconsin state Senate District 19, are not transparent.

Representatives of both groups did not respond to the Center’s request for comment.

Bernard Schaber lost, largely she believes due to the campaigns by those groups. And those behind the attacks remain largely unknown.

“That’s what makes it hard for the general public. They don’t pay attention to who is saying it,” she said. “They pay attention to the message.”

Leaving no footprints

Groups can drop in from afar, and then essentially disappear as they did in some state supreme court races.

At least four mysterious groups targeted candidates for state judicial races — contests historically removed from political blood sport. Such secretive spending is especially concerning within the judicial community because donors could come before a judge whom their dollars helped elect.

In Arkansas, a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America spent more than $160,000 to air three ads aimed at influencing the nonpartisan race for state Supreme Court. Such third-party spending was unprecedented in an Arkansas Supreme Court election.

One ad claimed that candidate Tim Cullen had called child pornography a “victimless crime.”

Cullen wrote that phrase in a 2006 brief while representing a sex offender who was appealing his sentence. However, Cullen said he was referring to his client’s conviction for enticing a minor — not the child pornography charge mentioned in the ad — and that he characterized that crime as “victimless” because his client engaged in sexually explicit Internet chat-room conversations with undercover police officers pretending to be young girls.

Cullen has repeatedly said the ad’s claims were false, and at the time, his campaign countered with an ad that aimed to exonerate him. But by the time of the election in May, Cullen was outspent, and he blamed his 4-percentage-point loss to Robin Wynne on the LEAA’s ads.

The LEAA, a Virginia-based nonprofit, does not have to publicly reveal its donors, nor is it required to file campaign finance reports with the Arkansas secretary of state. In the past, the group has been backed by the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though neither group has reported grants to the LEAA on recent years’ tax returns.

The LEAA has not made available its own tax returns from the past two years, keeping the public in the dark about the groups’ leadership and any of its recent donations to other organizations. Nor have representatives from the group responded to the Center’s repeated requests for comment.

Cullen said he was troubled by the attack and pointed to the conflicts of interest such secretive support could create for elected judges in state courts.

“We don’t know where the money came from, so we don’t know when to ask Justice Robin Wynne who his benefactors are,” he said.

Following the disclosure trail of crumbs

Though the groups don’t have to report their donors, sometimes clues can be gleaned from other public records.

Very often the donors to a nonprofit are other nonprofits, which are required to reveal their contributions. Or publicly traded corporations may voluntarily disclose donations in their corporate filings.

Ohio’s Supreme Court race attracted nearly $600,000 in TV ads from the ambiguously named Washington, D.C.-based American Freedom Builders. In one of the few positive ads aired by political nonprofits, the group supported Republican Justice Judi French’s successful re-election to Ohio’s high court.

Like the LEAA, little is known about who funds American Freedom Builders. However adocument released by Reynolds American earlier this year shows the tobacco giant donated $15,000 to the group in 2013, as the Center for Public Integrity has previouslyreported.

This debate has reached a fever pitch in Arizona, a breeding ground for some of the country’s most prolific political nonprofits. The secretary of state audited politically active nonprofits in July, including the group that attacked Kennedy in the corporation commission race, to make sure they met the state’s “social welfare” requirement as a nonprofit. Yet earlier this month, a federal judge threw out a provision in the state’s campaign finance law that required all other political committees to disclose their donors.

Kennedy believes the group that purchased the ads, Save Our Future Now, was financed by Arizona Public Service — the state’s largest electricity utility, which is regulated by the commission. She has advocated for solar energy tax incentives opposed by the utility.

The utility told the Center it supports candidates and causes that are “pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona,” but the utility declined to disclose specific political contributions or answer questions about alleged ties to Save Our Future Now.

Kennedy, devastated by the Save Our Future Now attack ads, said she’s hesitant to run for office again. She’s stopped reading newspapers or watching television and said her consulting business has been hurt by the bad press. Politics has strained her family life, too. A classmate of Kennedy’s 16-year-old daughter bullied her about the group’s accusations, she said.

“I think it’s a deterrent for other good people who want to serve,” she said. “Why would I put myself and my family through it again?”

Rachel Baye, Kytja Weir and Ben Wieder contributed to this story.

TIME 2014 elections

Democrats, Republicans Call Off Election Night Parties In DC

Welcome to the era of Citizens United

Correction appended, Nov. 3

Cancel the confetti cannons. Roll up the bunting. Democrats and Republicans won’t be partying on Tuesday like it’s 2006.

Election night in Washington D.C. traditionally features two big hotel ballroom parties on different sides of Capitol Hill. Organized by the congressional committees, Democrats and Republicans gather staffers, donors and volunteers to watch returns come in and celebrate together various victories.

Journalists come along for the ride, with cameras capturing the crowds’ reactions. Of course, some parties are less fun than others: John Boehner’s party in 2006 was markedly quiet, while Nancy Pelosi hosted a blowout bash. The roles were reversed as the returns came back in 2010.

But this year, the parties are off. Pelosi will do an event with donors and a press availability after the returns come in. “We’re welcoming volunteers and supporters into our office to make calls to turnout voters all over the country and we’ll be calling into the West Coast until late in the evening,” said Emily Bittner, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s spokeswoman

The staff at the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the House, “will be working all night,” says spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.

Neither committee on the Senate side will be doing parties, either, sources say.

That said, Magnum Entertainment, a private company, will be holding a party for Republicans at Union Station, a little birdie tells TIME. A message left for Magnum asking who is funding the party went unanswered. But such an event would seem appropriate in an election where outside spending has already topped $770 million.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

 

TIME 2014 elections

No, Republicans Aren’t Yet Winning the Women’s Vote

Jeanne Shaheen,Scott Brown
Jim Cole—AP United States Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), right, listens as her Republican rival, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown speaks during their debate , Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 in Conway, N.H.

One poll doth not a trend make

The Associated Press dropped its latest national poll Wednesday ahead of the midterm elections due to be held in less than three weeks. The poll had a spate of expected findings: likely voters favor Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate, the top issue remains the economy, and no one likes either party very much. Then, buried in the seventh paragraph of the story, was this nugget about women voters:

Women have moved in the GOP’s direction since September. In last month’s AP-GfK poll, 47 percent of female likely voters said they favored a Democratic-controlled Congress while 40 percent wanted the Republicans to capture control. In the new poll, the two parties are about even among women, 44 percent prefer the Republicans, 42 percent the Democrats.

Given Democrats’ unrelenting drumbeat on women—their women’s economic agenda, the GOP’s “War on Women”—for the last six months, this looked like surprising news. Democrats have staked the fate on the Senate on turning out one demographic: unmarried women, who vote reliably Democratic but tend not to show up in off presidential elections. Democrats have won women every year since the Reagan era except for 2010 and in losing them they lost control of the House and six Senate seats. Thus their strategy this year to turn out unmarried women in order to prevent a 2010 from happening all over again. If the AP poll is correct Democrats are in deep trouble.

Needless to say, paragraph seven led the Drudge Report much of the morning: “Poll shock: Women want Republicans!” That spawned a spate of headlines from conservative news sites. Townhall led with: “Poll: More Women Plan to Vote For Republicans in Midterms.” And Hotair blared: “Republicans closing the [gender] gap.”

But the poll is just one data point, and there is a good reason to be skeptical of a major shift in the female electorate. The reason is the voter screen that the AP used.

“Their likely voters screen in this survey is very similar to the 2010 electorate—i.e. more conservatives than moderates are likely to vote,” says Dave Winston, a GOP pollster. “But if you’re looking at variety of different surveys, the voter screening differences are huge, so you’re depending on how they phrase a question—are you likely to vote—or a series of questions to come up with who’s in the poll.”

Winston says the AP took steps after its polls proved off course in 2012 to correct what they saw as flaws in their survey-taking. But their new processes remain unproven. “The proof will be in the pudding,” he says.

The AP says they stand behind the poll. “The poll does show quite clearly that women who are likely to vote and have a preference for who controls Congress have shifted toward the Republicans. And I stand firmly behind that finding,” says Jennifer Agiesta, the AP’s director of polling.

Granted, every midterm electorate skews older, more conservative and more male and Democrats face an uphill battle trying to turn out a demographic that doesn’t usually vote, but this poll is either wrong or “it’s a precursor to a trend that none of us have spotted yet,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who together with GOP pollster Ed Goeas does George Washington University’s Battleground State polls. “But I haven’t seen any other poll that shows that.”

“It seems off, honestly” Lake says. “We aren’t seeing any place where there isn’t a gender gap. We haven’t’ seen any polling that shows women trending Republican. You see men more enthusiastic for Republicans than women are for Democrats, sure. And women are sitting more undecided, which is why both parties are looking to convince women voters before election day, but we haven’t seen anything even approaching gender parity, let alone women trending Republican, in our polls of likely voters.”

The only other recent national poll that breaks out likely voters by sex came out with opposite results. Fox News found Dems winning women 44% to 35% amongst likely voters in a survey conducted Oct. 12-14. And polls in battleground states have Dems winning women by double digits and unmarried women by as much as 30 points in many cases.

“This just isn’t what we’re seeing in competitive races. North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado and Michigan all have decisive and, in some cases, historic gender gaps with women favoring Democrats,” says Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-choice female Democrats. “The GOP can try to cling to this national poll, but the reality is that they continue to be underwater with women voters in key races – women don’t trust them on the economic issues that matter to them and their families. Whether it’s ending gender discrimination in pay, raising the minimum wage or protecting access to health care, women voters know that it’s Democratic candidates who are squarely on their side and they’re going to show it at the ballot box.”

In 2012, Democrats benefitted from a couple of GOP senatorial candidates who said dumb things about women and rape, comments that turned off female voters, helping President Obama and the Democrats win big with women. This cycle, Republicans have avoided such missteps. Both Mark Udall in Colorado and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen have turned away from War on Women ads and attack lines in the last week. But are Republicans winning women? The preponderance of state and other national polls indicate that isn’t happening.

TIME 2014 elections

Courts Shoot Down Voter ID Laws in Texas and Wisconsin

A polling location in Lipan, Texas seen during the last presidential elections in 2012.
Tom Pennington—Getty Images A polling location in Lipan, Texas seen during the last presidential elections in 2012.

Some say voter ID laws are discriminatory, while others argue they prevent voter fraud

The Supreme Court and a lower court blocked voter identification laws in Wisconsin and Texas Thursday, clearing the way for hundreds of thousands of voters in both states to have easier access to the polls as next month’s midterm elections loom near. The laws are two of many passed by several states recently in what supporters say are intended to clamp down on voter fraud, but detractors argue the rules are discriminatory and illegal.

The U.S. Supreme Court late Thursday blocked Wisconsin’s voter identification from taking effect, reversing a lower court order to let the law stand during next month’s midterm elections in a 6-3 ruling. Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying it’s troubling that the change comes so close to the midterms. Voter rights advocates, however, praised the ruling, with Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union saying in a statement that it will “help safeguard the vote for thousands of Wisconsinites.” The ACLU is among the groups challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came down as a district court in Texas found that state’s similar voter identification law discriminated against black and Latino voters, violating the Voting Rights Act. The federal government and a slew of advocacy groups brought a suit to fight Texas’ law, which the state implemented just hours after last summer’s Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required Texas and several other states to get federal government approval before implementing new voting laws.

In a statement, Texas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Gary Bledsoe said voting rights advocates are “greatly encouraged by today’s decision.” However, the state of Texas said it will “immediately appeal” the ruling, according to a statement from the state attorney general’s office.

TIME 2014 Election

Court Blocks Parts of North Carolina Voting Law

North Carolina's law has been fiercely criticized by voting rights advocates

Updated at 10:05 a.m., Oct. 2

A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked parts of a sweeping North Carolina voting law from taking hold ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision to allow provisions of the law that eliminate same-day-registration and the casting of out-of-precinct ballots. The appeals court on Wednesday still allowed other portions of the law to stand, including the cut of seven early voting days. But in a 69-page opinion Wednesday, the appeals court said an August decision by the lower district court to allow the full law was flawed.

The decision comes just weeks before the early voting period is set to begin in the Tar Heel State on Oct. 23. “The right to vote is fundamental,” Judge James Wynn wrote in the majority opinion. “And a tight timeframe before an election does not diminish that right.”

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory issued a statement Wednesday saying though he was pleased most of the law will apply in November, the state plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. North Carolina’s law has been one of the most criticized by voting rights advocates since the Supreme Court ruled that parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional, which opened the door for states to enact more voting restrictions.

TIME 2014 elections

This Candidate Will Pay For Your Gas to Smash a Toy Train

Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari
Rich Pedroncelli—AP California Governor Jerry Brown, left, listens as Republican challenger Neel Kashkari speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 4, 2014

The underdog Republican gubernatorial candidate is going to extreme measures to bring out supporters

Updated at 2:56 p.m.

On Wednesday afternoon at a Mobil gas station in Burbank, California, Republican candidate for governor Neel Kashkari will hand out $25 gas vouchers to people who will destroy a toy train.

The event—headlined “Do you want a free gas card?” in a fundraising email—will protest gas taxes associated with the state’s high-speed rail, which Kashkari has labeled the “Crazy Train.” Kashkari’s competitor, three-term Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, believes that the $68 billion project connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco will be a major economic boost.

Kashkari campaign spokesperson Mary-Sarah Kinner told the San Francisco Chronicle that the event is “not a rally.”

“Neel is offering drivers who smash a toy train $25 towards a tank of gas as part of his larger effort to underscore the point that Jerry Brown is increasing the cost of gas to pay for the bullet train,” she said.

The event is legal under California state law, according to Dr. Richard L. Hasen, a leading election law expert at UC Irvine Law School. “So long as there is not payment for voting, or voting for Kashkari in particular, I do not see a legal problem,” says Hasen.

But the event is another signal that Kashkari’s campaign is sputtering six weeks before election day. Brown holds a nineteen-point lead over Kashkari, according to aggregate polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics.

It struck Dr. Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, as “crazy” that the Kashkari campaign thinks it has to pay supporters to show up.

“If they can’t get a few activists to smash a toy train for free, I’m not sure the campaign can hope to mobilize the many millions of voters that they will need to win in November,” says Kousser.

TIME 2014 Election

Midterm Elections See a Surge in Ads About Energy and Environment

Projected to hit highest level ever

Political ads about energy and the environment will likely reach their highest number ever this election cycle, according to the Cook Political Report.

While these issues usually don’t rule the national polls of top midterm election priorities, there are several competitive races this cycle with energy at the forefront, especially in the Senate. There is also new outside money being spent on environmental issues, particularly from billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent a reported $26.6 million of his own money this cycle to raise the profile of climate change through his super-PAC NextGen Climate Action.

“We’ve already seen more spots in U.S. Senate general elections alone (87,000 as of September 12) than we saw by this point in both Senate and House races in 2008 (56,000),” writes Elizabeth Wilner, a Senior Vice President of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence and contributing editor of the Cook Political Report. “If you add in 2014 House spots, we’ve nearly doubled the 2008 number (102,000). And with overall trends in advertising being what they are, with spot counts increasing over time, logic points to 2014 being the biggest cycle for energy/environment-related advertising, ever.”

Many of the “toss-up” Senate races this year have candidates bashing each other over energy industries that are economically or culturally important to the state. The prospect of the Keystone XL pipeline has ignited races from Michigan down to Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is trying to prove how her chairmanship on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will help the state increase its offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has campaigned on his commitment to fight the “War on Coal” while his Democratic rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, hit the airwaves to put distance between herself and President Barack Obama on the issue. In Colorado, the support for the green energy industry has thrust Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s campaigns to cut ads with their candidates in front of wind turbines. And in Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Beigch has aired an ad of him driving a snowmobile over the ice of the Arctic Ocean to tout his efforts to expand drilling there. In a response ad for Republican opponent Dan Sullivan—a former commissioner of the Alaska’s Department of Natural Resourcesan X Games medalist criticized Begich’s “lame tricks,” driving skills and voting record.

Some energy industries appear to have a have a greater hold than others on donors’ wallets. While Democrats and Republicans are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to figure out who is more pro-coal in Rep. Nick Rahall’s southern West Virginia district, NextGen Climate Action has yet to receive much support, receiving four donations of $250, $500, $300 and $2,500 in August, according to Bloomberg.

TIME

Iowa Absentee Ballots Have Nearly Doubled Since 2010

Enthusiasm is building ahead of November's election to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin

Absentee ballot requests have nearly doubled in the state of Iowa since 2010, according to government statistics released Monday, reflecting higher voter engagement ahead of November’s election to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

With 43 days to go until the state votes, Iowa Democrats have a sizable advantage over Republicans in early voting numbers. Almost 58,000 Democrats have requested an absentee ballot this year, up from around 34,318 four years ago, said Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz in a statement. Republican absentee ballot requests are at 31,099, up from 12,710, and the number of independent or “no party” requests have increased from 9,664 to 23,043. Overall there have been 112,178 requests this year compared to 56,725 in 2010.

Dr. Kedron Bardwell, a political scientist at Simpson College, says it’s too soon to tell if the numbers indicated an “enthusiasm gap” in the race between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican state senator Joni Ernst. Bardwell notes that the Iowa Republican Party has placed more of an emphasis on voting in-person over absentee ballots in the past, but that recently-elected party chairman Jeff Kaufmann had vowed to close the early voting gap.

“This shows they have a long way to go in that respect,” says Bardwell. “If we see the Republican absentee and early voting numbers continue to lag the Democrats well into October, we will know it is a symptom of a larger problem, with Republicans increasingly playing ‘catch up.'”

TIME 2014 elections

Kentucky Democrat Takes Shots at Mitch McConnell and Obama in New Ad

"I'm not Barack Obama," says gun-toting senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, before lecturing Republican opponent on how to hold a firearm

Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes shows off her skeet shooting skills in a new ad distancing herself from President Barack Obama.

“I’m not Barack Obama,” says Grimes, decked out with earplugs, a shooting vest and yellow tinted glasses, and holding a semi-automatic Remington rifle. “I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA.”

Grimes also blasts her National Rifle Association-approved opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for awkwardly holding a gun earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“And Mitch, that’s not how you hold a gun,” says Grimes. Her campaign confirmed that the firearm used in the ad is owned by the Democrat.

The ad follows a tradition popularized by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who famously shot a hole through cap-and-trade legislation in a 2010 campaign ad. Republicans have also picked up on gun imagery this year. Alaska Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan shot a television in protest of special interest advertising and Iowa’s Joni Ernst shot a target in protest of Obamacare.

McConnell is up by 5 points in the race, according to polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Update at 12:05 p.m. on September 16

The McConnell campaign responds with a new ad.

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