Stateline Story

Anti-Tax Groups Post Mixed Record in Nov. 2 Elections

  • December 22, 2004
  • By Pamela Prah

National anti-tax groups are gearing up for legislative spending battles in 2005 with a few more allies in the nation's statehouses, but they weren't as successful as they'd hoped in booting out of office incumbents who supported tax hikes.

Washington, D.C.-based groups such as Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Club for Growth and Freedom Works/Citizens for a Sounds Economy spent thousands of dollars trying to elect Republican fiscal conservatives who pledged not to raise taxes -- with mixed results.

ATR says that there were 31 state-level races in which taxes played a dominant role and that "no-new taxes" candidates won 18 and lost 13. "We had some success," said ATR President Grover Norquist. State lawmakers are learning that "having a tax increase in your background is like having an illegal nanny. ... It can be a career-ender," he said.

Norquist went zero-for-three in key gubernatorial races. He stumped last fall for state Sen. Patrick Ballantine (R), who ran unsuccessfully against North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D). He also hit the campaign trail for New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson (R), who was upset in his bid for re-election by Democrat John Lynch. And his candidate in West Virginia -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Monty Warner -- was soundly defeated by Democratic rival Joe Manchin.

The North Carolina chapter of Freedom Works/CSE says it won eight of the 14 statehouse races it targeted and five of nine state Senate races. "It's pretty much what we had expected," the group's spokesman Allen Page said. "We were active in some races that we knew would be a long shot [to win]," he said.

Here's a sampling of how some anti-tax activist groups fared in the Nov. 2 election:

  • The Kansas Club for Growth failed in its bid to defeat Democratic state Rep. Tom Holland, whom the club opposed for his support of a $155 million tax increase to fund public schools. Holland won, besting his opponent, Republican Rich Lorenzo. The club also had targeted for defeat Democratic incumbents state Sen. Greta Goodwin and state Rep. Josh Svaty, both of whom won. 
  • In Michigan, Freedom Works/CSE said four of seven statehouse races were won by candidates who supported the Freedom Agenda, including one by just over 300 votes (Republican newcomer Rick Baxter). 
  • The National Taxpayers United of Illinois, another anti-tax group, had said a top priority was defeating the "tax-raising" Republican state Rep. Sid Mathias. The group failed. Mathias easily beat Democrat Nick Chrisos.

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

Anti-tax activists went into the general elections with several key primary victories under their belts. The groups claimed 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.

Some observers speculate that anti-tax groups have better success at the state primary level, but that their candidates are more conservative than most voters are willing to accept in the general election.

"These groups tend to support extreme, anti-tax candidates, and I don't think the extreme anti-tax message sells very well among many voters," said Nick Johnson, a state budget expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that focuses on budget policies that affect the poor. He said it is irresponsible for anti-tax groups to always oppose a tax hike of any kind, regardless of the circumstance.

Voters this past November also appeared to be willing to endorse higher taxes as long as the extra revenue is targeted for specific programs. Colorado, considered a model state by anti-tax activists, was one of four states where voters approved ballot measures to increase taxes and target the money to specific programs.

Looking ahead, the ATR and Virginia Club for Growth have 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 and five other states (Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and New Jersey) did not hold legislative elections in 2004.

Kansas is another state the anti-tax groups will target. The Kansas Legislature fell three votes short in 2004 of passing an increase in income, sales and property taxes. "Next year, the Legislature is certain to try to raise taxes again," ATR said in a roundup of statehouse election results.

Also likely on the anti-tax groups' hit-list is Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel (R), who helped Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell increase personal income taxes and legalize slots in 2004. In 2004, Perzel wrote to campaign supporters that the Pennsylvania Club for Growth and other conservative groups "have already targeted me for defeat," according to The Patriot-News. The Pennsylvania Club for Growth spent nearly $2 million in an unsuccessful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (RPa.) in the state primary in favor of U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey (R).

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 the 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 California, Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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.