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Of course, Arkansas went heavily for Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election and Republicans had already made significant gains in the legislature in the wave election in 2010. So perhaps Arkansas was due to be a red state, and it's impossible to know whether it was the money that put Republicans over the top.
Cook believes that AFP's money was ultimately not the difference maker. The day after the election, he called AFP the election's "biggest loser" and cited a whopping 20 races that AFP had targeted and lost.
"At a certain point, when you have that much mail and that much television, it just becomes lost in all the noise," he said. "To a certain extent, people tune out."
Still, even if Cook is right that AFP lost more races than it won, the broader goal was presumably to gain control of the legislature, and that much was accomplished, even if it was by a nose in the House. And $1 million, for all of the noise that made in Arkansas, is a drop in the bucket for AFP. Even a small tilt in the outcome is likely a happy return for an investment this (relatively) small.
"In the grand scheme of things that's not a whole lot of money for billionaires," Cook admitted. "They have their agenda that they want to impose on various states so I would not be surprised to see them slapping down another million or two million dollars [in the next election cycle]."
Martin also expects AFP to continue spending big bucks in Arkansas. "They have apparently unlimited resources," she said. "We definitely have to operate under a new set of circumstances."
So we can expect all those mailers and phone calls and ads to be the new normal. Depending on your perspective, you might view this as either a happy increase in information and engagement with local elections, or the pernicious intrusion of big money over the public interest. Either way, the landscape of local races has dramatically changed, and there's no turning back.
The other question is how the new dynamic will impact policy. Elected officials will presumably be paying attention to AFP's always-vocal stands on the issues given the likely involvement of AFP when they're up for re-election.
Medicaid expansion will present a serious test. In the past, pressure from powerful local interests might have persuaded budget-conscious conservatives to jump at the chance to gain hundreds of millions of federal dollars. But does that pressure register if a group like AFP is willing to outspend everyone?
"Will the Republicans dance with them who brung them?" Roth asks. "They're going to have to decide whether they are going to uphold what's best for the constituents."
Republicans in particular may be very reluctant to stray from conservative dogma, given the threat of a primary challenge from the right. AFP successfully got involved in several Republican primaries last year.
One of them was the Senate race between former Rep. Rick Green and Sen. Bruce Holland. Green believes that a flood of AFP mailings attacking him — with what he says were false charges — were a deciding factor.
"I have been labeled as a moderate Republican, whatever that means," he said. "I felt like I was pretty conservative. But if you didn't vote in lockstep with exactly the agenda some put out there, then you were thrown under the bus."
Green expressed concern about how this would impact votes in the legislature. "You're agreeing to voice the opinion of some group in Virginia — are you really representing the people you aspire to represent?"
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