State Parties Gone Wild

There’s been a lot of turmoil at the grassroots level in key battleground states.

  :WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), talks about student loans during a news conference on Capitol Hill, June 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senators talked about solutions to keep student loans from doubling on July 1st. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) :WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), talks about student loans during a news conference on Capitol Hill, June 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senators talked about solutions to keep student loans from doubling on July 1st. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)  
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
July 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

In Alaska, an out­go­ing Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­wo­man changed the locks on the party of­fice dur­ing a snowstorm and fled the state dur­ing her ouster. The Demo­crat­ic Party in North Car­o­lina is still re­build­ing after a top staffer in 2012 was ac­cused of sexu­al har­ass­ment by a fel­low male em­ploy­ee. Ore­gon Re­pub­lic­ans, not known re­cently for their or­gan­iz­a­tion­al strength to be­gin with, are led by a chair­man who made head­lines in 2013 for so­li­cit­ing ur­ine samples for his med­ic­al-test­ing re­search.

These are just three col­or­ful ex­amples of state parties in tur­moil, loc­al stor­ies that take on great­er sig­ni­fic­ance this year with these states host­ing high-stakes Sen­ate races.

Sen­ate races and statewide cam­paigns aren’t stand-alone op­er­a­tions; they de­pend on state parties for everything from get-out-the-vote ef­forts to fin­an­cial as­sist­ance and data, and not hav­ing that sup­port puts in­creased pres­sure on the can­did­ates and na­tion­al groups to fill the gaps.

“Most state parties, their primary re­spons­ib­il­it­ies are to re­cruit and train good can­did­ates, to provide a grass­roots and voter-con­tact in­fra­struc­ture, and be able to have the fin­an­cial re­sources to pay for data,” said Thar­on John­son, a Geor­gia Demo­crat and former re­gion­al dir­ect­or for Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2012 cam­paign. The re­la­tion­ships that a strong state party main­tains with voters dur­ing nonelec­tion years are cru­cial to can­did­ates’ out­reach abil­it­ies the next fall, John­son said.

“Na­tion­al parties have to con­tin­ue to find cre­at­ive ways to work with or without a func­tion­ing party,” John­son said. “It’s al­ways pre­ferred to go through a healthy state party.”

Troubled state parties now play­ing host to key midterm races are keenly aware of the roles they’re ex­pec­ted to play, and many have ramped up ef­forts to get their or­gan­iz­a­tions in place. Here’s a look at how five chal­lenged state parties are pre­par­ing for 2014.

Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans

Up un­til sev­er­al months ago, the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Iowa had been dom­in­ated by Ron Paul-sup­port­ing liberty act­iv­ists, which com­pelled na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to form their own Iowa or­gan­iz­a­tion in 2012 in­stead of work­ing through the state party. By the time al­lies of Gov. Terry Bran­stad swept out the last of the Paul-aligned lead­er­ship this spring, the party was es­sen­tially broke, with less than $11,000 in its fed­er­al ac­count to sup­port a high-pro­file Sen­ate race and sev­er­al com­pet­it­ive con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns. Adding in­sult to in­jury, the ex­it­ing ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or col­lec­ted $38,000 in pay­ments to use on his well-doc­u­mented travel plans, and left his re­place­ment with a list of in­ac­cur­ate so­cial-me­dia pass­words, which some sug­ges­ted was in­ten­tion­al.

But new lead­er­ship un­der former state law­maker Jeff Kaufmann has put the state GOP at the cen­ter of a highly-or­gan­ized co­ordin­a­tion ef­fort.

“It’s go­ing to be a dis­tinct change from the past,” Kaufmann said in an in­ter­view. “We’re go­ing to be in a po­s­i­tion to make a dif­fer­ence, per­haps, and likely the biggest dif­fer­ence in the last three elec­tions.

“We’ll be in sync with the vic­tory of­fice and the GOTV ef­fort,” he said. “And we are ac­tu­ally, for the first time in ages, hav­ing in-depth, de­tailed dis­cus­sions with all the cam­paigns so that we’re avoid­ing du­plic­a­tion and so that we are re­in­for­cing ex­actly where they need re­in­force­ments.”

Geor­gia Demo­crats

Geor­gia’s State Demo­crat­ic Com­mit­tee elec­ted DuBose Port­er as chair­man in Septem­ber of 2013, fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of then-chair Mike Ber­lon, who faced dis­tract­ing eth­ics com­plaints re­gard­ing his leg­al ca­reer and had his law li­cense sus­pen­ded.

Port­er and na­tion­al Demo­crats in­sist that his team has been able to bridge the gap left dur­ing Ber­lon’s ten­ure. In a quickly chan­ging state where minor­ity voter turnout will be huge for his party, Port­er has hired ex­per­i­enced com­munity or­gan­izers for a co­ordin­ated cam­paign to reach tar­get groups: labor, Afric­an Amer­ic­ans, His­pan­ics, and white voters.

Com­pared to 2012, Port­er says the party is “light years” dif­fer­ent, cit­ing his long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ships with the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “The re­la­tion­ship with the DNC has been great,” Port­er said. “As soon as I was elec­ted chair I went to Wash­ing­ton and met with the DSCC. I wanted them to know that they could have the con­fid­ence in what we’re do­ing with the party.”

North Car­o­lina Demo­crats

Tur­moil in North Car­o­lina’s Demo­crat­ic Party has been no secret, thanks to some sa­la­cious de­tails leaked to the press from a staffer’s sexu­al har­ass­ment com­plaint in 2012. The party’s then-ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, Jay Parm­ley, resigned after ac­cus­a­tions from an­oth­er male staffer but denied any wrong­do­ing. The party chair­man even­tu­ally left as well.

In March, cur­rent chair­man Randy Voller de­scribed the party as “broke” and said it was eval­u­at­ing wheth­er to shut the doors on its Raleigh headquar­ters. As a res­ult, Sen. Kay Hagan’s cam­paign is run­ning its co­ordin­ated ef­forts with the largest county Demo­crat­ic Party or­gan­iz­a­tion in the state, in Wake County. Re­pub­lic­ans in Nevada did a sim­il­ar thing in 2012 to avoid an­oth­er Paul-aligned state party lead­er­ship.

Ore­gon Re­pub­lic­ans

Re­pub­lic­ans hope to run a com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate race here, nom­in­at­ing so­cially mod­er­ate neurosur­geon Mon­ica We­hby to face Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeff Merkley. Un­for­tu­nately, the party in­fra­struc­ture hasn’t been much of a force in many years, Ore­gon Re­pub­lic­ans say.

“They have not been par­tic­u­larly well-fun­ded the past couple of elec­tions,” said Ore­gon Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Bob Moore. “The party is not a ma­jor force in elect­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in the state and it hasn’t been in a num­ber of years. I hon­estly don’t re­mem­ber the last time they were a force to be reckoned with. If any­thing, they’ve some­times been a pass-through for the [Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee].”

The party is led by Chair­man Art Robin­son, who is run­ning for of­fice for the third time in the 4th Dis­trict after two failed bids in 2010 and 2012. He’s gen­er­ated some un­wanted head­lines for the party by so­li­cit­ing ur­ine samples from the pub­lic for his med­ic­al re­search.

RNC spokes­wo­man Kirsten Kukowski said the na­tion­al com­mit­tee was pla­cing staff and re­sources in the state who would work along­side the state party — but not around it in any way.

Alaska Re­pub­lic­ans

The Alaska Re­pub­lic­an Party is also re­build­ing after a change in lead­er­ship. In April 2013, former chair­wo­man Debbie Brown was the second of two Paul-aligned party lead­ers to be ous­ted from the po­s­i­tion; she was re­placed by cur­rent chair­man Peter Gold­berg.

The com­mit­tee had planned to re­move Brown for fail­ing to raise money, but in the mean­time, she changed the locks on the party headquar­ters dur­ing a snowstorm and threatened to ar­rest any­one who at­temp­ted to enter. She was voted out from an An­chor­age of­fice com­plex.

Kukowski said the RNC had es­tab­lished a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Gold­berg lead­ing up to the state’s big Sen­ate race and had sent a com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or up spe­cific­ally to work with the state party ahead of its late primary.

Alaska Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Art Hack­ney agreed that pro­gress had been made with­in the state party, but said na­tion­al groups’ help was lim­ited be­cause of the ex­tens­ive ground game re­quired to com­pete in Alaska. He cred­ited na­tion­al Demo­crats for con­trib­ut­ing to their side’s soph­ist­ic­ated tar­get­ing op­er­a­tions rather than just pour­ing money in­to gen­er­ic na­tion­al TV ads.

Kukowski said the ground game for Alaska Re­pub­lic­ans was still in the works. She poin­ted to a new pre­cinct pro­gram with hun­dreds of pre­cinct lead­ers armed with new tech­no­logy. She said the RNC has been work­ing to build out a field pro­gram over the last year with of­fices and a grow­ing staff pres­ence.

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