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February 13, 2016

The 7 Most Dysfunctional State Parties

In the past two years, one state party chairman was investigated by the local bar association. Elsewhere, an about-to-be-ousted party leader changed the locks at the headquarters. Two more state parties were threatened with eviction.

Traditionally, state parties have been the meeting point between the national political organizations and the local ground game. But in recent cycles, many of them have become so dysfunctional that they are now irrelevant — or even worse, detrimental, to the national party’s efforts.

The reasons behind their ineptitude vary: Some parties struggle with finances, others with competing personalities. For Republicans, many of the problems stem from power struggles between tea party activists and old guard operatives.

Does it matter if the state party is dysfunctional, especially in the age of shadow campaigns and ubiquitous third-party spending? It depends whom you ask.

Of the dozens of operatives CQ Roll Call interviewed, most had such low regard for state parties that they shrugged off the incompetence. They described the evolution of a state party’s role in federal politics as a glorified bank account for cheaper television and postage rates.

Still, some operatives stress that a functional state party is crucial to a national party’s interests in some states. One hired hand argued that a strong state party infrastructure is particularly important in fast-paced special elections.

Here’s a look at the seven most dysfunctional state parties. Their selection was based on interviews with national and local operatives, elected officials, former and current staff, plus local news reports. The selection aimed to mostly include states that could affect the midterm elections, as well as the extent of their dysfunction.

CQ Roll Call sought comment from these organizations, and their responses are noted only if the inquiry was returned.


Alabama Democratic Party

Yellowhammer State Democrats struggle to keep the lights on — literally.

Earlier this year, Mark Kennedy bolted from the state party’s top job to form a group called the Alabama Democratic Majority.

Soon after, interim chairwoman Nancy Worley announced the committee was in dire financial straits: It had been threatened with eviction, was unable to pay utility bills, had its credit cards maxed out and was missing equipment from the party’s headquarters, according to The Birmingham News.

The party is now saddled with $500,000 in debt and is tasked with finding a permanent chairman and recruiting statewide candidates for 2014. Meanwhile, Kennedy took to the Alabama Democratic Majority’s Facebook page to defend his tenure and maintained his new group would support — not sabotage — the state party.

The state of Alabama Democrats might not matter much in 2014, given that there are no competitive House races in the state. But the party’s situation is indicative of Democrats’ dire organizational situation throughout the Deep South.


Alaska Republican Party

Twice this spring, Republicans gave their state party leaders the pink slip.

Just before she was ousted as chairwoman, Debbie Brown changed the locks at the party headquarters. Then she headed to a Republican National Committee meeting in California, where she claimed to be the current head of the party. Talk about awkward: The newly elected chairman, retired Army Col. Peter Goldberg, also attended.

Normally this sort of drama is inconsequential in a state as solidly Republican as Alaska. But the GOP will play offense as it attempts to defeat Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, in 2014. What’s more, local Republicans will have to contend with a primary for the nomination — most likely without a strong party leadership to guide that battle.

Goldberg said that since he took over, he has righted the fundraising woes that plagued the party under the previous regimes.

“When I’m done we’re going to have two Republican senators,” Goldberg added.


Georgia Democratic Party

As in much of the South, the Peach State’s Democratic Party has decayed for years. But Georgia’s problems are more consequential than in other states.

After 2010, the party fell on tough times — Democrats no longer held any statewide offices. In June, Chairman Mike Berlon stepped down from leading the cash-strapped party after the state bar association temporarily suspended his law license and the Georgia Supreme Court reprimanded him for work with a private client.

None of this bodes well for Democrats: Georgia is one of only two feasible states where the party could pick up a Senate seat in 2014. And Democrats hope to use this contest —and their much-touted candidate, nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn — as a test case in a state where changing demographics could shift votes in their favor by 2016.

Still, Peach State Democrats remain hopeful about Nunn, who announced this week she will seek retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat. Georgia Democratic Party spokeswoman Liz Flowers praised the interim chairwoman’s efforts and called Nunn’s newfound national relevance “icing on the cake.”


Iowa Republican Party

Over the past few years, supporters of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, infiltrated local party ranks in targeted states across the country. But nowhere has the effort been more effective or consequential than in this battleground state.

Paul backers now make up a working majority of the state central committee and occupy the offices of chairman, co-chairman and finance chairman. Their ranks are in constant conflict with Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the state’s most established Republican, and many GOP state lawmakers.

“You’re always going to have bickering and infighting. The idea that somehow we’re a troubled state party is a little bit ridiculous and if you talked to Chairman [Reince] Priebus, he would be happy to agree with that,” Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker said. He brushed off the notion of ongoing trouble with Branstad and touted his committee’s financial position.

The local discord scares the national GOP — its most immediate concern is the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. National Republicans fear the state’s antiquated convention process could help the Paul supporters nominate an unelectable candidate for the general.

But these troubles come at a pivotal time for Iowa on the national scale, too. The state is fighting for relevance in the presidential primary calendar after the past two caucus winners failed to get the national nod.


Minnesota Republican Party

Just a few years ago, the Minnesota GOP held a Senate seat, hosted the Republican National Convention in St. Paul and its governor, Tim Pawlenty, was laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign.

Since then, the party posted $2 million in debt, according to local reports, with former Chairman Tony Sutton shouldering the blame. He was forced out in late 2011. By the next spring, the state was nearly evicted from its building.

Local party officers credit former state GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge with staunching the party’s financial bleeding. But the GOP still has a long way to recover.

And for Gopher State Republicans, the timing could not be worse. The party has incredible opportunities in 2014, with a gubernatorial race, a Senate race and two competitive House seats up for grabs. But it’s unlikely the party can help its candidates, given its current condition.


Nevada Republican Party

In May 2012, Paul’s supporters took over the state party at the local convention in what sources describe as a “Robert’s Rules of Order” war of attrition. Within a few weeks, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee unveiled a shadow party structure for their operations called “Team Nevada.”

A few months later, the two camps came to a head at the national party convention, when the national party refused to count the state GOP delegate votes for Paul.

More established party operatives won back several consequential county chairmanships in recent weeks, but there is little evidence that the gaps between the two factions have been bridged.



New Jersey Democratic Party

This party’s problems can be boiled down to two words: Chris Christie.

New Jersey’s governor is one of the most powerful executives in the country. The Garden State is otherwise a Democratic stronghold, but not having the top office hurts the party immensely.

Local Democrats are frustrated they could only find a second-tier candidate to challenge Christie later this year. But the party’s troubles stem from another Christie contest.

In 2009, Christie defeated then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who propped up the state party infrastructure with his personal fortune. After Corzine left office, local organizations found themselves financially “flatfooted,” described one state source.

The good news for Democrats? The Christie era must end: He will either run for president or reach his term limit in 2017. After him, the local GOP bench remains weak, and Democrats hope the natural order of blue state politics will return.

  • jefeinoc

    You forgot the California Republican party, which cannot seem to find a strong leader to drive the state. Also at the end of the prior census the Republicans and Democrats colluded (cooperated) to create safe districts for everyone, but keeping the democrats in majority. If politics is about keeping a safe seat and not fighting the good fight, I would pass on supporting, it is one reason I am now independent. California has since passed an initiative (over both parties objections) taking the electoral re-alignment process out of the hands of both parties.

  • oldhandatthis

    I’m not sure why New Jersey is listed here, yes the state has a popular Republican governor but the NJ Democratic party is well financed and strong. The rest of the dysfunctional Democratic parties are in the deep south which is not a surprise. The dysfunctional Republican parties are geographically diverse, including several early primary/caucus and battleground states. Where as the deep south Democrats need to rebuild atrophied state parties that fell to the Republican’s southern strategy, the causes of Republican dysfunctionality are mostly self inflicted and driven by huge and bitter splits in the party with various factions battling for party control. The Republican Party is sinking fast under the weight of Ron/Rand Pauls’ so called libertarians, the tea party, and the old guard establishment factions. The party is no longer able to offer the country any forward vision and is barely able to unite in opposition of Democratic proposals which is reflected in the GOP inability to win popular votes in Presidential elections or win enough state wide elections to retake the senate in a time when this should be an easy task.

  • Mimihaha

    The Illinois Republican Party is pretty much toast also.

  • Joe Stanford

    Well… Roll Tide.

  • CaMaven

    I was going to the comments section to add CA Republican Party, but see that Jefeinoc beat me to the punch. At 29% of voters registered, GOP is rapidly becoming a 3rd party, behind “decline to state.” All statewide positions are held by Democrats. 2/3 of legislators are Democrats, meaning they don’t need a single Republican vote to get anything done, Most judges appear to be Progressives. The redistricting was a disaster for the Republicans, as was the open primary approach. CA GOP poobahs are doing everything they can to make the Republican Party into the RINO party, in hopes that will attract voters. Democrat lite is NOT the answer, boyzz.

  • CaMaven

    The redistricting law was passed before the redistricting and supposedly calls for partisan balance on the “independent” committee. However, I went to multiple redistricting hearings, where it was evident that most committee members are Progressive statists, regardless of party label.

  • webcelt

    Which two Minnesota seats are up for grabs? One has a freshman who nonetheless hasn’t been drawing strong challengers, one has a long time incumbent who will leave behind a very vulnerable seat if he retires, but if he runs, won’t be close, and the other is working on electing other Democrats because he’s looking secure. I would hardly call the governor and senate seats incredible opportunities when the Democratic incumbents are looking strong and haven’t drawn strong challengers. I suppose I’m saying it’s even worse for the state GOP than indicated here.

  • Paul Horning

    The Iowa Republican Party was a trainwreck long before Ron Paul’s minions infiltrated.
    How else can you explain that vermin like Tom Harkin keeps facing off against weak sisters?

  • webcelt

    Given that there are other state parties that hold no statewide offices, I’m curious as to why they were left out. Some can’t even always field statewide candidates.

  • JR684

    Don’t forget the Utah Republican Party. Democrat Jim Matheson has held a congressional seat in Utah for over a decade. Last year, Utah Republicans nominated Mia Love as their candidate. Love had gotten into the race late and was heavily outspent by two other candidates, yet she defeated them both with over 70% of the vote thanks to an incredible grassroots campaign. Love was the first Republican candidate in years with a great shot at finally defeating Matheson.

    But immediately after winning the primary, the Utah Republican Party leadership convinced Love to fire her entire campaign staff and replace them with the leadership’s friends. The party chairman even had Love put his executive director in charge of her campaign. They convinced Love to do all this by promising to focus party fundraising efforts on her race only.

    The Love campaign completely fell apart after firing the original staff. The focus of many local newspaper headlines were the internal problems her campaign was having. She was miserably unprepared for debates against her Democratic opponent. Her TV ads were the most hilariously poor ads you’ll ever see. Volunteers who helped run her grassroots campaign prior to winning the nomination were never contacted by the campaign again. Rather than reach out to swing voters, she focused her attention on winning over far-left voters, which in turn alienated her base. (This is reflected in the fact that the traditional Republican strongholds in her district had far lower turnout than the rest of the district.)

    Despite all of the dysfunction brought on by the state party, Love only lost by about 750 votes! Just imagine what would have happened had she not allowed the inept Utah Republican Party leadership to take over her campaign.

  • Phil Perspective

    I’m not sure why New Jersey is listed here, yes the state has a popular
    Republican governor but the NJ Democratic party is well financed and

    You really know nothing about New Jersey, do you?

  • oldhandatthis

    Well, I was born there and still have family there. I go there several times a year and I pay attention so actually I do know a bit about Jersey.

  • Derrick Patterson

    California – The state that should be its own nation. Imagine – a large, diverse, progressively liberal, unitary state with a parliamentary-style government. It would be a socialist’s heaven. Free healthcare, free education, legalised drugs and prostitution, no guns, no religious hacks infiiltrating government…

  • Bushmine

    It would be great. Only ten years until utter failure and bankruptcy, I hope it happens soon.

  • Bushmine

    Actually it is surprisingly strong. if they win 3% more of chicago they would take over the state. Outside of Chicago the entire state is Republican, so I assume you have no idea what you are talking about

  • Charles Wolf

    That’s right … and with the “electoral re-alignment process out of the hands of both parties” they could no longer draw crooked lines to create safe R districts.
    Sooo, as a result of drawing honest district lines, the Ds picked up enough new seats for a super-majority. The new Dem supermajority balanced the there-to-fore out of whack budget almost the same day they were sworn in.
    If we drew up districts throughout the country honestly, as is now done in CA, the republican party would become extinct in a year or two.

  • Nick Browne

    The Democrats do have some strength in the Quad Cities, the St. Louis suburbs, and the downtowns of some of the other “large” downstate cities like Springfield (quotations since they’re nowhere near Chicago in size), but otherwise you’re right.

  • Nick Browne

    Collin Peterson’s seat is considered a potential pickup, given that it leans consistently (if not overwhelming) towards the GOP in presidential elections, though he has long been difficult to beat, due in part to a conservative voting record. The other, I would guess, is Rick Nolan’s seat; while Obama won that district’s vote in 2012, the Democratic share of the vote has been declining there, while Nolan is in his first term. That said, both seats would require work if the GOP were to get them…most political websites list the Democrats as having the advantage in both races.

  • Bob

    Umm Maryland GOP? They put all of their bets on the 2012 ballot initiatives that were beaten back pretty easily, the party lost state senate seats in the 2010 Tea Party wave and were regulated to a single conservative congressman after 2012 who can do nothing statewide. On top of that the party can’t reach out to the conservative minded democrats in voter rich Baltimore County or have a long term plan to remain relevant in the conservative-turning moderate Frederick and Anne Arundel counties. I think the MDGOP should be the king of dysfunctional parties.

  • jefeinoc

    I appreciate the somewhat mindless and thoughtless party uber alles attitude, it reflects on something I haven’t read about since 1930s Germany. The fact is in California from the last census we were forced to wait two years due to lawsuits from democrats.

  • jefeinoc

    California, much like Detroit, is a one party town

  • JohnDale49

    It would be great, until the money ran out and the race riots started.

  • JohnDale49

    Correct. Literally, all the rats have in this state is Chicago and a couple of stray counties.

  • jefeinoc

    10% of the population, 37% of the nations welfare recipients. Almost like France

  • Dan Lovingood

    We are making very good structural progress in Georgia. We had a great meeting tonight in Dalton, GA with Doug Stoner, candidate for Chairman, Democratic Party of Georgia. Very impressive!

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