By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE JAN. 11, 2014
By his third year as chairman of the Alabama Republican organization, Mike Hubbard believed his party had just about everything it needed to win control of the State Legislature.
He had a plan: an 88-page playbook for the 2010 campaign, with detailed, district-by-district budgets and precise voter turnout targets. He had candidates: doctors, lawyers and small-business owners, most of them political novices recruited with an eye toward the anti-establishment fervor roiling the country.
What Mr. Hubbard did not have was enough money. Alabama law barred corporations, deep-pocketed natural allies for state Republicans, from giving more than $500 to candidates and parties — a limit that did not apply to the state’s unions.
So began a nationwide quest for cash that would take Mr. Hubbard, plan in hand, to the Republican Parties in states like Florida and Ohio, to a wealthy Texan who was one of the country’s biggest Republican givers and to a Washington organization that would provide checks from dozens of out-of-state corporations, among them Exxon Mobil, Google, Facebook and Altria.
Exploiting a loophole in the state law and a network of political action committees in Alabama and Washington, Mr. Hubbard shuffled hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars into the Republican organization in Alabama, vastly outraising the state Democratic Party. On Election Day, Republicans won majorities in both the State Senate and House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction — and Alabama joined the rapidly growing fraternity of states where government is controlled by a single political party, now the largest it has been in more than half a century.
Alabama’s transformation was the product, in part, of a sophisticated political apparatus designed to channel political money from around the country into states where conditions were ripe for Republican takeover. In 2010, the effort achieved striking success, moving a dozen states to sole Republican control, including presidential swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In 2012, a resurgent Democratic version — financed chiefly by labor unions and wealthy liberal donors rather than corporations — began to catch up, spearheading Democratic takeovers in Minnesota and Colorado.
Their combined work has helped remake the nation’s political landscape. Republicans or Democrats control both the legislature and the governor’s office in 36 states, the most in 60 years. Twenty-three states are now solely controlled by Republicans, and 13 solely by Democrats. In two others — New York and Washington — one chamber is jointly controlled.
In some states, the shifts are largely organic, the product of Latino immigration, economic transformation and other demographic forces. But elsewhere, the strategic deployment of campaign cash has helped consultants and donors accelerate or arrest states’ natural drift toward one party or the other, defying national election trends or voter registration advantages.
“People who want to see policies enacted, and see things tried, are moving their activity to the states, and away from Washington,” said Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican strategist who has played a central role in efforts to swing state legislatures to Republican control. “There is a sense that you can get things done.”
Their party’s success has empowered Republican lawmakers in dozens of states to redraw legislative districts on both the state and federal levels, potentially ensuring their party’s control of the United States House of Representatives for the rest of the decade.
But those successes are also paving the way for what amounts to a vast, real-world experiment in lawmaking: At a time when Washington appears hopelessly divided and gridlocked, elected officials in one-party states have aggressively reshaped government policy, whether legalizing same-sex marriage and marijuana, abolishing taxes and regulations, or restricting guns or labor unions.
Their labors have propelled Democratic- and Republican-controlled states in starkly divergent directions. California, where the state capital is controlled entirely by Democrats, has expanded the range of nonphysicians who can perform surgical abortions, while states held by Republicans, like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, passed new limits.