Off the beaten path: Local election results (and spending) to watch

(Photo credit: Justin Grimes/Flickr)

The presidential election and U.S congressional races have taken up a lot of oxygen in the room this cycle, but as we predicted, there’s also a lot going on at the state and local level. Gridlock at the federal level has outside money moving down ballot — WAY down ballot. Sometimes it flows into races like state legislature, city council and even school board, where it is easier to gain influence on legislation for a fraction of the price of the federal level. The National Institute for Money in State Politics estimates that around $65 million in independent spending has made its way into state level races in 2016. (FiveThirtyEight recently wrote about the “nationalization” of local politics.)

So here are a few of the local things we’re watching tomorrow night and will continue to watch after all the dust settles from the election:

State legislative races

If you need more evidence that state legislative races are nationalizing, just check out the fact that Politico is reporting that President Barack Obama this year endorsed several state legislative candidates by doing robocalls, social media posts, photo ops and radio ads. The piece attributes it to Obama wanting to help the party, but it wouldn’t be surprising if, given many Republican state legislatures refused to expand Medicare in their states, the Democrats were also trying to build some friendly support for any “fixes” that may be needed in the future.

A shout out to my home state right now… but I really think the results of the Kansas legislature race are worthy of national interest. In 2012, money from Koch-funded groups helped elect a state legislature supportive of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s “fiscal experiment” of reducing income taxes for businesses. During the primaries, voters rejected many of the incumbent candidates who supported those policies that left the state hemorrhaging money. The makeup of the legislature will be dramatically different in January — the question is by how much?

School board races

We warned earlier this year that gridlock at the federal level meant we would see more money move down ballot — especially into judicial and school board races. For many people, it seems perplexing that dark money groups would get involved in something as basic as a school board election, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

School boards make decisions about curriculum and spending, but they also make decisions about where to set school levies and whether to sell bonds or ask voters to raise levies. Those levies end up determining how much families and businesses will pay in property taxes.

Property taxes thus end up becoming a large expense for a business. Louisville is one example of where that outside money has poured in. (Also of note: A little money goes a long way in these election!)

It’s sometimes difficult to follow the money in these races nationwide as the candidates usually file at the local level with a county clerk or elections official. That makes it challenging to see how this is trending and what groups are acting nationwide.

Judicial races

The Brennan Center reports 52 state supreme court seats in 27 states are up for grabs, and that $14 million dollars in independent money has been spent on TV ads for these seats so far this year. There’s a concerning amount of dark money being spent in these races as well, which is troubling for a judiciary that is supposed to be independent.

Ballot initiatives

As our friend Adam Smith over at Every Voice pointed out today, there are several interesting ballot measures to watch as well. Missouri, Washington, South Dakota and California are among the states with ballot initiatives addressing campaign donations.

And as we’re talking about ballot measures, it’s important we talk about the potentially record-breaking spending on those as well.

  • In California, The Mercury News reports groups had already spent $390 million on ballot measures six weeks before the election.
  • In Oregon, groups have spent more than $42 million combined campaigning about a proposed corporate gross tax receipts measure.
  • In Colorado, The Denver Post reports almost $48 million spent combined on ballot measures regarding fracking, increased tobacco taxes, medical aid in dying and a proposition to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution.

Finally, we’ve been trying to collect some examples of local level dark money spending. If you have some, please share! We’ve only received a handful of contributions and, as we pointed out with the school board races, we need help from you to help put together a better list for after the election. If you see a race we should know about, please fill out this form below!