The Waning Power of State Political Parties

They’re far from irrelevant, but campaign financing laws have hurt their influence.
December 2015
By Alan Greenblatt  |  Staff Writer
Alan Greenblatt is a Governing staff writer.

State parties matter less than they used to. They enjoy no monopoly on recruiting or training candidates. They face more restrictions when it comes to raising funds than super PACs and other outside groups do. Sometimes those groups can have more foot soldiers in place during a campaign than the parties themselves. And, at least in off years, many state parties barely even have anyone around to answer the phone. “State parties have become really a shadow of what they used to be,” says GOP consultant David Carney. “It’s kind of tragic.”

Still, they’re far from irrelevant. Advertising can be outsourced to super PACs, but some efforts can’t. State parties do the often unglamorous work of building and maintaining a base, year in and year out, whether there’s an election or not. They mobilize loyal supporters and have a standing knowledge of voter behavior and concerns. Parties also play a unique role in coordinating activity and messaging between candidates at all levels, from legislators to the presidency. “A super PAC can fill the airwaves and Internet with effective, targeted negative messaging, but it cannot activate party supporters, who rely on local elected officials for guidance, support and patronage,” says Matt Hennessy, a Democratic consultant.

But state parties can’t really compete with super PACs when it comes to raising funds. Thanks to the federal McCain-Feingold law, which abolished soft money -- unlimited funds donated to parties from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions -- they’ve lost out in the contemporary money race. It’s instead being poured into super PACs or so-called dark money groups that don’t have to disclose the identity of their donors. Some politicians and commentators argue it would be better to lift restrictions on party fundraising. Parties are more accountable due both to federal reporting requirements and the fact that they have to worry about their reputations in future election years -- something not always true of super PACs.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case is making it easier for parties to raise money. Individual donors who previously could give no more than $74,600 to all parties in a given cycle can now offer well over $1 million. Congress also softened rules on donations to parties, which will make a big difference in a presidential year. Parties will be able to argue that giving money to them will help favored candidates to whom big donors have already maxed out their contributions. Already, Hillary Clinton has entered into joint fundraising agreements with a majority of state Democratic parties. Increased funds coming to state parties will boost turnout and advertising efforts that assist down-ballot candidates even more than the standard-bearers.

No one likes the amount of money sloshing into politics. Yet, as the Brennan Center for Justice concludes in a recent report, “organized parties plainly are more transparent than the shadow parties and other outside groups competing with them for resources.”