If money is influence, the Republican Governors Association wielded more of it than anyone else last year in state elections nationwide.
The group, led in 2014 by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, gave roughly $69 million to candidates, political parties and independent groups — more than double its Democratic counterpart — as it tried to elect Republicans to the top office in as many states as possible. The group gave more than any other donor to state-level elections last year — from races for governor to legislator to supreme court justice.
The association applied an effective strategy that’s becoming more common: giving money using multiple paths to circumvent limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties, a Center for Public Integrity analysis has found.
In addition to the money it spent directly on TV ads and other campaign efforts, the group gave about $14 million to candidates including Illinois’ new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also gave more than $3 million to state parties, including those in Texas and Maine.
The bulk of the checks it wrote, however, totaling about $50 million, went to other political groups that in turn spent the money on state races.
Its efforts largely paid off. Republicans gained four governorships in 2014 and only lost two, leaving them holding the reins in 31 states.
The group “was designed to supplement what candidates could do on their own in the states,” said Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor who turned the association into a powerhouse in the mid-1980s. “Obviously, it’s grown beyond that.”
Its competitor, the Democratic Governors Association, gave $32 million and ranked second among the sugar daddies of 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis. The group only picked up one new governor’s mansion, with Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf defeating incumbent Republican Tom Corbett. (Alaska's Republican incumbent was beaten by an independent, Bill Walker.)
Together, the two governors' groups and other national political organizations gave significantly more than political parties, unions, multimillionaires or corporations that also contributed heavily to influence state-level campaigns. The donations went beyond races for governor. The funds made their way into lower-ballot contests such as attorney general, state supreme court justice and state legislator.
The national groups also cropped up on the lists of the biggest donors in most states, outgiving homegrown political players in a sign that all politics may now be national.
In all, the top 50 political givers spread more than $440 million to the people and groups pushing candidates for state office, the Center for Public Integrity found. The list is thick with billionaires such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and corporations such as telecom titan AT&T Inc.
They also were more successful in backing winners than most donors, becoming the de facto kingmakers of state politics.
“It’s an amazing amount of power concentrated in a handful of organizations,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics that collected some of the data used for the analysis. “If people want to understand why government is dysfunctional, you don’t have to look much farther than this list.”