-- Unlimited donations from corporations and wealthy individuals have helped committees working to elect Republican governors and state legislators break fundraising records and surge past Democrats.
The stakes are high: More than 6,100 state legislative seats and a record 37 governorships are up for grabs Nov. 2. The winners will influence policy on everything from taxes to implementation of the nation's health care law. They will draw new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts that will long shape the political landscape.
"This is the Super Bowl of state elections," said Michael Sargeant, who directs Democratic state legislative efforts.
Democrats hold 26 of 50 governorships. The party controls 60 state legislative chambers, to 36 held by Republicans.
Though federal candidates and national party committees are barred from taking corporate and union donations, no such restrictions apply to the associations that work to elect governors and state legislators.
The Republican Governors Association (RGA) collected a record $58.3 million through June 30, compared with $40.4 million for its Democratic counterpart, federal records show. The Republican State Leadership Committee had a more than 3-to-1 fundraising edge over the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee at the end of August.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Houston home builder Bob Perry are the top givers to the GOP governors group, giving $2.5 million each, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan chamber, said his group donated because "governors are very important policy and political leaders." He would not identify the companies that helped fund the RGA contribution. Spokesman Anthony Holm said Perry gave because "it's governors who are leading their states to prosperity by creating jobs and creating quality education."
Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the GOP governors committee, said donors want to "elect governors who promote a pro-business agenda."
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.6 million government workers, is the top giver to Democratic committees, donating nearly $3.3 million through June 30 to the Democratic Governors Association and $600,000 to Sargeant's group, according to the center. State-level races are important to the union because "collective bargaining relationships in a lot of these states will be at risk if very conservative right-wing Republicans get elected," said Larry Scanlon, the union's political director.
Scanlon said the union's political work helps it gain access to decision makers. "It doesn't mean you get the answer you want, but at least the door is open, so you can make the case," he said.
Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said: "There is no influence one could buy from the DGA. ... We have no policymaking authority."
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report, says Republicans could nab six to eight new governors seats to gain the majority.
"Republicans right now have the momentum," she said. "Voters don't like the direction the country is going."
Historic trends don't bode well for Democrats in state legislative chambers, said Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. In all but two midterm elections since 1900, the president's party has suffered triple-digit losses in state legislatures.
"The question is how big the wave will be in the direction of the GOP," he said.