Stateline Story

Anti-Tax Groups Target Statehouse Spenders

  • October 28, 2004
  • By Pamela Prah

National anti-tax groups hope to flex their political might in the Nov. 2 elections with the same muscle they showed in state primaries in which they helped to upend several Republicans legislators who voted for tax hikes.

Washington, D.C.-based groups such as Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Club for Growth and FreedomWorks/Citizens for a Sound Economy zeroed in on several primaries, targeting Republican legislators in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin who reneged on their pledge not to raise taxes. Now anti-tax activists have their general-election sights set on state legislators' or governors' races in Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia.

"The fastest way to end a Republican's career is to vote for a tax hike," said Grover Norquist, president of ATR, a Washington, D.C., group formed during Ronald Reagan's presidency that opposes tax hikes of any kind. ATR expects to spend at least $1 million this year to promote anti-tax candidates and defeat others who fail to toe the line on taxes at the state level. More than 1,300 state legislators and eight governors have signed ATR's Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

The groups use a combination of mailings, press conferences, phone banks and advertising to get the word out about state candidates' tax records. ATR is most prolific with the press releases showcasing tax busters and lambasting those politicians who hike taxes.

The groups claim credit for seeing at least a dozen tax-hiking state lawmakers get the boot in state primaries. Among the Republicans kicked out of office in state primaries, in large part because of their votes to boost taxes, were: Mary Panzer, the Wisconsin Senate majority leader; Curt Bromm, the speaker of the Nebraska Legislature who lost in a bid to move up to Congress; and several key GOP Kansas lawmakers who supported a tax-hike bill, including state Rep. William Kassebaum, the son of Kansas' former U.S Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) and grandson of former Gov. Alf Landon.

Derek Willis, who tracks state campaign issues for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., said the anti-tax groups are showing a "greater sophistication" in getting their message out to voters about state-level races. "They certainly have a great potential to affect [state-level] elections," he said.

All three groups ask candidates for public office to sign pledges not to increase taxes and hold politicians' feet to the fire if they break the pledge.

These anti-tax groups are controversial and have plenty of critics. "No-tax pledges, or targeting anybody who ever votes for a tax increase, are very bad public policy," said Iris J. Lav, deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., group that focuses on tax policies that affect the poor. "To say it's always only appropriate to cut taxes is to basically say, `We really don't want to have government, that government doesn't have much of a role in people's lives,'" Lav said.

Technically, none of the groups encourages voters to cast their ballots for a particular candidate; as tax-exempt groups, that is not allowed. Their stated mission is to "educate" voters on the candidates' record on taxes. The three groups differ in that Club for Growth is a so-called "527" group, created specifically to raise unlimited money for political activities, while ATR and FreedomWorks/CSE are nonprofits that are allowed to engage in some political activity as long as it does not become their primary purpose. All three are supposed to restrict their efforts to voter education and mobilization.

The Club for Growth targets what it calls RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, who the group says fail to live up to the "Reagan vision" of economic growth through limited government and lower taxes. While the Club for Growth office in Washington, D.C., targets national candidates, several state affiliates have sprouted, including chapters in Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. One is about to be formed in California.

The Kansas Club for Growth is going after Democratic state Rep. Tom Holland for his support of a $155 million tax increase to fund public schools. Holland's opponent, Republican Rich Lorenzo, told the Lawrence Journal World he was glad that the Kansas Club for Growth was working against his opponent but said he had no communication with the group. Lorenzo, however, said he didn't agree with the group's absolute opposition to tax increases and would consider a tax increase for schools as a last resort.

Of the 11 governors' races, anti-tax activists are stirring up action in three: New Hampshire, North Carolina and West Virginia. ATR President Norquist in mid-October stumped for state Sen. Patrick Ballantine (R), who is running against North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D). Norquist also this month hit the campaign trail to show support for New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson (R) in his bid for re-election and for West Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Monty Warner, who lags behind Democratic rival Joe Manchin in recent polls. All three Benson, Ballantine and Warner signed pledges not to raise taxes.

Democratic legislators who put their signatures on "No Taxes" promises are as likely as Republicans to be hammered for breaking that vow. Among Democrats who ATR says reneged: Georgia Rep. Buddy Childers; Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett and Massachusetts Rep. Demetrius Atsalis. ATR lists 10 Indiana legislators seven GOP and three Democrats as new inductees to the organization's "Hall of Shame" for voting for a tax increase package.

On the flip side, state-level candidates who have earned support from anti-tax activist groups include Kris Munn of Nevada, a Republican trying to oust state Rep. Mark A. Manendo (D), and Rep. Harry Mortenson, a Democrat who is running for re-election. In Oregon, state Rep. Linda Flores and Sen. Gary George, both Republicans, get the nod from anti-tax supporters, and in West Virginia, anti-tax activists want Republicans Jack E. Fincham, Clark S. Barnes and Rusty Webb to fill three open seats in the state Senate.

The newly formed South Carolina Club for Growth is promoting state Senate candidates Kevin Bryant and Ken Wingate, both Republicans, and expects to spend $40,000 between the two candidates.

The North Carolina FreedomWorks/CSE uses its tax pledge and voter guide as part of a door-to-door canvassing and voter education campaign, said spokesman Allen Page. Some 100 state House and Senate candidates have signed the pledge from FreedomWorks/CSE not to hike taxes. At least three Republicans got the boot in the primary because they reneged on their pledge not to raise takes, Page said.

The co-chairs of FreedomWorks/CSE are conservative Republicans savvy with Washington lobbying techniques: former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former U.S. congressman and 1996 GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush.

A top priority for another anti-tax group, the National Taxpayers United of Illinois, is to defeat the "tax-raising" Republican state Rep. Sid Mathias, said Jim Tobin, president of the Chicago-based organization. Tobin's group is mailing campaign literature to some 300 members to showcase Mathias' tax record. The group, which claims to have 10,000 members in Illinois, supports Libertarian Scott Bludorn for Mathias' seat. Tobin said Bludorn would help kill a bill increasing the personal income tax.

Looking ahead, the ATR and Virginia Club for Growth already vowed to go after the 19 GOP delegates and 15 state senators who endorsed Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's (D) tax hike package this year. The groups have printed "Virginia's Least Wanted" posters. Virginia does not hold legislative elections this year, along with Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Here's a sampling of the state lawmakers who suffered defeats in primaries after attacks by anti-tax groups earlier this year:

  • Kansas: Key GOP legislators who supported a tax-hike bill in 2004 lost in the GOP primary, including state Rep. Cindy Neighbor and Rep. William Kassebaum, son of former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) and grandson of former Gov. Alf Landon. The chairman of the state Senate tax panel responsible for the tax bill, David Corbin, also was defeated in the primary by realtor Peggy Palmer in her first bid for the office. 
  • Nevada: Sen. Ray Rawson (R), who supported Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn's 2003 tax increase, lost to state Rep. Bob Beers (R), an anti-tax pledge signer. Republican Jason Geddes, one of five Assembly Republicans to vote for the tax increase, was defeated by GOP businessman Brooks Holcomb, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Republican physician Joe Heck beat GOP Sen. Ann O'Connell by portraying her as an advocate of higher taxes even though she had a reputation as a fiscal conservative. 
  • Nebraska: The speaker of the state's unicameral Legislature, Curt Bromm, refused to rule out tax hikes and lost in the primary for an open seat in the U.S. Congress. Bromm, who had received the endorsement of outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter (R), had been favored to win. Club for Growth spent $250,000 in TV ads against Bromm, the Associated Press reported. 
  • North Carolina: Republican legislators Mike Decker, Mike Gorman and David Miner all got the boot in the primary after they reneged on their pledge not to raise taxes. 
  • Oregon: State Sen. Jackie Winters (R) lost in the primary to attorney Jim Zupancic, who during the campaign emphasized that Winters was one of the few Republican legislators who voted with Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski to raise taxes in 2003 to balance the budget. Voters later rejected the tax increase in a February ballot measure. 
  • South Carolina: Joan Brady, a Republican candidate and anti-tax pledge signer, beat Susan Brill in a close primary race to fill an open seat the General Assembly. Despite three years of tight budgets, the state has not raised taxes, and Brady promised to keep in that way. 
  • Wisconsin: Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer (R) lost her party's nomination for re-election to state GOP Rep. Glenn Grothman, who signed a pledge not to raise taxes. Panzer had been accused of blocking a vote on a "Taxpayers' Bill of Rights" measure that would limit tax hikes.