Democrats and their organized labor allies poured more than $ 20 million into state legislative races in New Jersey, and that investment appears to have paid off.
In the wake of Tuesday’s election, the party retained control of the Garden State legislature despite a 20 point rout by Republican Chris Christie in the governor’s race. Out of 72 seats across both chambers, only a single incumbent Democrat lost — blunting the best chance the GOP had to retake control of the state house.
The outside spending could be a model for state-level battles in 2014 and beyond as outside groups play an increasingly prominent role in political races at all levels.
“We made sure that the governor had no coattails,” said Jonathan Levy, executive director of Democratic super PAC Fund For Jobs Growth and Security that played a major role in the outside spending in New Jersey.
Christie, for his part, acknowledged the role that unlimited money had played in dashing Republican hopes of a legislative takerover.
“Outside forces in this state spent $ 25 million defending the Democratic Legislature, double what I spent on the gubernatorial campaign. It makes a difference,” he said during a Wednesday presser, pointing also to gerrymandering.
“I think it was not an unexpected result,” he said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
Levy’s group — headed by longtime Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confidante Susan McCue — spent just under $ 8 million total in the New Jersey legislative races. Republicans were badly outspent in the state as two Democratic groups poured millions into television, field operations and digital organizing.
The Democratic investment in state-level races comes as the party is in the midst of a full-scale embrace of super PACs and outside money.
Billionaires with progressive priorities like environmentalist Tom Steyer, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg dumped millions into elections in 2013 — focusing on pet issues like gun control, immigration and climate change.
And Democratic outside groups at the federal level significantly outraised similar Republican groups in the first half of 2013. The pro-President Barack Obama nonprofit Organizing for Action and two super PACs aimed at helping Democrats win back control of Congress outpaced Republican groups in that period — including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
McCue, who is running both the Senate Majority PAC and a state level effort that spent big in New Jersey, said that no decisions have been made about applying the same model to other states. However, a draft website for the Fund obtained by POLITICO in September identified North Carolina and Wisconsin as other possible targets for the group’s efforts.
In New Jersey, McCue said, the Democrats acted decisively to protect their majority against Christie’s popularity.
“Tuesday’s legislative victory was the result of an unparalleled team effort in New Jersey to build a firewall to protect our Democratic majorities,” said McCue. “Together, we applied a model used to win national races to achieve the same success in these state elections.”
The Fund boasted of a voter-turnout operation that knocked on 255,000 doors across the state, combined with an extensive TV, radio and direct-mail offensive in less than a dozen districts across the state. Those buys included six-figure radio and TV buys in state legislative races.
The New Jersey Education Association spent more than $ 10 million in addition to the Fund —and the super PAC boasted of strong cooperation with their labor allies.
The investment in state races comes at Democrats were badly outmatched in 2010 at the state level. As a result of setbacks in 2010, the party lost control of the redistricting process in many states — giving Republicans a significant advantage in statehouses and in the U.S. House of Representatives.