On the bulletin board in his office, State Republican Party Chief Chris Healy keeps a description of the ‘Six Phases of a Project’. The first phase is enthusiasm, followed by disillusionment and third is panic & hysteria. Phase Four, the search for the guilty, is followed by the punishment of the innocent and Phase Six, praise and honors for the non-participants, completes the list. Without control of a single lever of political power in the state for the first time in decades, it is clear that disheartened Republicans have commenced the search for the guilty. Perhaps the most vocal to this point has been a call for changes at the Connecticut Republican Party. Though understandable as an expression of the old Truman desk sign “The Buck Stops Here”, the practical realities of the new political landscape are much less clear-cut in this regard than critics might suggest.
It is true that there was once a time when the State Party apparatus wielded wide leverage over the candidates and political affairs of state Republicans. While the bully pulpit of the Chairman’s office and the ability to rally supporters are important, the control of significant financial resources was the most potent tool at the State Party’s discretion.
In 1998, the Connecticut Republican Party raised and spent $7 million in support of Grand Old Party candidates. In 2010, however, a preliminary tally of the State GOP accounts shows that at least $2.5 million was spent in support of the 2010 ticket. Adjusting the numbers for inflation, the 2010 effort was waged with roughly 70 percent fewer party resources than the 1998 campaigns.
This disparity wasn’t the result of laziness or incompetence. Major changes to the campaign finance rules and regulations have siphoned away State Central’s previous ability to raise funds. Changes in fundraising limits and the types of funds that can be accepted, as well as the elimination of tools like ad books and the contribution bans on lobbyists and state contractors, make fundraising for a political party much more difficult.
As a result, paid advocacy efforts like statewide television advertising or direct mail, is essentially unaffordable. Without the money to influence the political discussion, State Central has been forced to pursue dramatically less costly activities, like taking advantage of free and earned media opportunities, acting as a service bureau to local committees, and organizing Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. Even the GOTV effort was watered down in 2010, however, as the cash-strapped Republican National Committee eliminated its contribution toward the effort less than two weeks prior to Election Day.
If there is a great irony in this sad state of affairs, it is that the proponents of campaign finance reform sought to dilute the power of political parties. They achieved their goal. But in another telling point for the conservative critique of liberal social engineering, it likely was not the intention of the reformers that the political money would flow out of political parties and into generically-named, faceless organizations like Crossroads GPS, Democracy Alliance, or the Center for American Progress that funnel millions of dollars into political campaigns with little accountability as to how those funds are raised or spent.
At least when political parties controlled the money in politics, you knew who to blame. In this new political landscape however, the search for the guilty goes on.
Heath W. Fahle served as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party from 2007-2009. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com