WASHINGTON — National Republicans are making what they call an historic push to capture state legislative chambers or increase their majorities in states such as Louisiana.
These state campaigns are being watched as the prelude to next year’s presidential race.
National labor unions are aiding Democratic Party groups on the front lines, trying to beat back the GOP advances. But Republicans have stormed the country, winning about 700 state legislative seats and 57 chambers since last year, according to Republicans tracking the changes.
“It’s an evolution in the process of state legislative races because they are becoming more competitive, more sophisticated and better funded,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee that helps fuel the state races.
“People see where the action is, and the action is in state legislatures,” he said.
Four states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and New Jersey — have legislative races this year.
Nowhere has the battle over state chambers been more visible than in the recent recall elections in Wisconsin, where sides spent $30 million in an effort to control six Senate seats. Democrats captured two of the seats, targeting state Republican senators for a recall, but Republicans were able to hold the Senate majority, 17 to 16.
Both groups claimed victory in a showdown that was watched as pivotal for political races across the country, including next year’s presidential election.
“Wisconsin is what 2012 is right now,” said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “It’s part of a national conversation that we have been having.”
Zielinski noted that generally, the Wisconsin races would cost candidates anywhere from $80,000 to $90,000. This time around, the average amount spent on each race rose dramatically to about $5 million.
The spark of the state Senate recall campaign was Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s law ending collective bargaining rights for public workers. Zielinski saw the campaigns as more of a battle over Republican cuts to health care, transportation and education funding, he said.
“It’s a petri dish for all the conservative pipe dreams,” Zielinski said.
The bargaining issue served as a fire alarm for union members, who raced to the state to try to help Democrats flip the chamber.
“At one point, I bet you had every major labor leader from the country here,” Zielinski said.
Labor leaders viewed the effort as key to not only saving union membership, but fostering Democratic principles. State chambers recently have flipped to Republican in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
“We’re fighting for our lives here,” said Ricky Feller, political action leader for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Democrats crowed about capturing two seats in the Wisconsin race while Republicans saw it as a victory to retain the Senate.
“They said from the get-go that they were going to take the majority,” said Katie McCollum, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Republican Party. “They were the ones that laid it on the table and they failed.”
McCollum pointed to the races as evidence that the public is supportive of the Republican governor’s policies.
“The sky is falling mentality has been beaten back,” McCollum said.
Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies of Virginia worked with the campaigns of some of the Wisconsin Republicans. That the victory came in a swing state that President Barack Obama won in 2008 was pivotal. Ulm noted that Louisiana has been trending Republican since 2008.
“Wisconsin is a lot tougher than Louisiana,” Ulm said.
Jeff Marschner, of the conservative Citizens United group, sees the races as also a battle for the future. Through its political arm, The President’s Coalition, the organization has funded candidates on panels as low as city council races.
One of its Ohio city councilmen rose to the state Legislature and became treasurer before being defeated in a U.S. Senate bid, Marschner said.
“In the state houses, are up and coming politicians in national races,” Marschner said. “Today’s state house member may be tomorrow’s U.S. senator.”
The organization poured $570,000 into the Wisconsin race. But the group has even gone a step further in backing more conservative candidates over moderates in the Republican primary in Virginia.
In states such as Louisiana, which doesn’t have many union members, Democrats have had to rely on grass roots efforts through community groups and politically active faith-based organizations, said Jeff Howser, political outreach specialist for the AFL-CIO labor group.
The labor union has had to adjust to the Republican advances by making its political action activity on state legislative races a year-round effort, Howser said. The union also sees trying to beat back the Republicans in the trenches as a referendum on matters that will play a role in next year’s presidential race such as health care and education, Howser said.
“The legislative and municipal races are a growing concern to working people and changes in policy have enormous consequences for working families,” Howser said.
In Virginia, Citizen’s United spent $70,000 but came up short in its two Senate races, while winning a House slot.
“We made our best efforts, Marschner said. “At the end of the day, the person has to run the campaign.”