Thirty-six states will elect governors this year. Forty-six states will host legislative races. And then there are the dozens of judge, attorney general, state treasurer, even state school superintendent positions that are up for grabs. All in all, there are more than 6,300 state-level races around the country this year.
That’s a lot of campaigns and, more than ever, a lot of money. On the federal level, political advertising on television is on pace to top $2 billion in 2014 congressional races, The New York Times reports, with the number of ads aired so far up nearly 70 percent over 2010.
To monitor spending in state races, as well as track campaign contributions, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity won a $2.88 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) to expand their reporting on the influence of money in politics. Branching off the work their “Consider the Source” team began conducting during the 2012 elections, the new project —titled “Consider the Source: Who’s Calling the Shots in State Politics?”—will examine the power of outside groups on the state level.
“So much gridlock in Washington means that groups are trying to get their agendas pushed on the state level because they can get things passed they couldn’t on the federal level,” said project manager and reporter Kytja Weir. “There’s a lot of money being poured into elections, into lobbying, into model legislation—all components of state politics.”
Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, CPI and others, including the Wesleyan Media Project and The Sunlight Foundation, have tracked outside groups and their advertisements extensively in federal campaigns.
State and local campaigns, however, have not received as much scrutiny. (An exception: The National Institute on Money in State Politics is a valuable resource that collects—and makes navigable—state-level campaign finance data.) Local media outlets are finding it difficult to take up this task by themselves, not least because the number of dedicated statehouse reporters is dwindling—and those still around are spread relatively thin. According to a report by Pew Research Center, less than one-third of US newspapers now assign any reporter—full- or part-time—to cover the statehouse. Thirty-five percent of full-time statehouse reporters lost their jobs since 2003.
CPI intends for its new project to act as both a raw resource for these reporters and as a center for investigative work of its own. Over the course of the 3-year project, which will also examine the 2015 and 2016 election cycles, Weir said they hope to make connections between outside groups and the local races and issues they push for—or push against.
Using data from Kantar Media CMAG tracking television ads in markets around the country, CPI will collect information on how much is being spent, how many and how often ads are running, and what their messages are. By also looking at money spent on lobbying and at the financial disclosures of elected officials, CPI is focused on accountability—they’re also re-launching their State Integrity Project in November 2015 to evaluate anti-corruption measures and transparency in state government.
“We’re trying to take as holistic a view of the ways people are trying to influence the political machinery in each state,” Weir said.
Under Weir, CPI will have two full-time reporters and a data expert, and possibly a fellow, dedicated to the project, which will launch on its own microsite in September. The new “Consider the Source” site will include interactive graphics and individual state breakdowns for voters to see how elections are being influenced, as well as investigative reports into that data. CPI will also partner with news outlets to provide them with either full stories to run or reports to write up themselves.
If federal races are any indication, CPI will have a lot of ground to cover. Already, in Senate races, some 150,000 ads from outside groups have run this summer, which is usually a slower time for ads. For state-level candidates, the eagerness of outsiders to get involved—and the bang they can get for their their bucks in down-ballot races—complicates the road ahead. CPI expects some big shakeups, and they want to be there while it’s happening.
“Not that money is a complete proxy for who wins,” Weir said, “but it sure does help.”