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The Republicans’ 50-State Strategy | The Nation

Things looked good for the Democrats in 2009. Not only had Barack Obama been elected president, but for the first time in 14 years, their party controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Then came the 2010 midterms: In what Obama called a “shellacking,” the Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. While the headlines focused on the Republican takeover of Congress and what it meant for the rest of Obama’s presidency, the most painful losses occurred in the state races down ballot. Before 2010, the Republicans controlled 14 statehouses, and the Democrats held sway in 27. After 2010, the Republicans controlled 25 statehouses and had scored a trifecta—the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature—in 11 states.

In many of these states, what followed was a three-pronged attack—the introduction of model legislation, the deployment of publicity campaigns to promote it, and the use of faux-grassroots actions and demonstrations to rally support for it—that had been decades in the making and helped realize a battery of conservative policy priorities, many aimed at preventing the Democrats from winning back power.

In Wisconsin, for example, one of the first things the newly installed Republican governor, Scott Walker, did was introduce Act 10—which was supposedly intended to address the state’s budget gap but essentially ended collective bargaining rights for public employees and limited their unions’ ability to collect fees. The move sparked massive protests, attended by both public-sector workers and regular citizens. But he had a powerful coalition at his back ready to push the act through, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose model bills provided him with many of the legislation’s provisions; the State Policy Network (SPN), which backed think tanks like the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the MacIver Institute that spread the word in the media; and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group founded by right-wing megadonors Charles and David Koch that bused in hundreds of counterprotesters and bought at least half a million dollars’ worth of ads.

“Between ALEC, SPN, and AFP, then, Walker was buttressed by a ‘longstanding conservative alliance against unions,’ in the words of two New York Times reporters,’ ” writes Alexander Hertel-Fernandez in his new book, State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation. As with similar laws passed in other states, Act 10 was not just an ideological victory for conservatives; it was also a significant political win. With the power of public-sector unions diminished, one of the main forces resisting Republican rule had been eroded. “Do we have less boots on the ground? Yeah,” admitted one public-sector union leader in the state. “Do we give the same amounts of money to the candidates? No.” In the triumphant words of AFP president Tim Phillips, “That’s how you change a state.”

Packed with wonky and original data analysis, State Capture tells the grim story of how ALEC, SPN, and AFP became a well-honed “right-wing troika” that amassed conservative power, providing valuable insight into the operations of three shadowy groups that have profoundly shaped every American’s life—and have done so not from the White House but via state governments.

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