Campaign spending in support of ‘right to work’ paying dividends for conservative group
Brodie Deshaies saw unions give a voice to his family members, helping them negotiate a fair contract at work. So when he was elected to represent Wolfeboro in the New Hampshire House, he knew he would vote against right-to-work legislation, a perennial attempt to prevent private-sector unions from requiring non-union members to pay dues. For Deshaies, that no vote also aligns with his free-market Republican values: The government shouldn’t meddle in private-sector contracts.
There have been at least 30 attempts to pass a right-to-work bill in New Hampshire, none of which have succeeded. Even with a 50-seat Republican majority in 2017, the measure failed, with 32 party members voting with Democrats. In 2021, the bill was voted down by 24 votes. Proponents have argued that more businesses would come to New Hampshire if their workers weren’t forced to pay union dues. Opponents have countered with predictions that weaker unions would cost workers needed protections.
But the libertarian conservative group Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004 by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, disagrees. The organization wants New Hampshire to become a right-to-work state, and in the last two years it has spent over $1 million promoting candidates who share that view. Both Americans for Prosperity and the Republicans it has ousted agree: They’re succeeding.
Of the 21 Republicans who voted against right-to-work legislation in 2021, fewer than half have a shot at returning to the State House. Eight decided not to run again, and four were defeated in the primary, including Deshaies, who blames his defeat on Americans for Prosperity’s involvement. He believes outside money in campaigns could continue to shape the state’s stance on right to work moving forward.
“There are a lot of outside groups – and this is true in both parties – that are realizing how inexpensive it is to buy a seat,” he said. “I use that term very directly: to buy a seat in the state Legislature. And they realize how effective it can be in changing the state’s policy.”
With a dwindling percentage of the Republican caucus opposing right-to-work legislation, this session could yield a different outcome. Gov. Chris Sununu, a right-to-work proponent, would not stand in the way. And the Legislature is poised to take up the issue in 2023 if preliminary legislation seeking to reintroduce the bill moves forward.
In an article for the Guardian, three university professors wrote that Americans for Prosperity’s focus on “anti-union legislation” is both in line with libertarian free-market ideology and a strategy for building conservative power. “AFP has recognized that to make lasting change in US politics, the Koch network would need to permanently weaken the organizations that support liberal candidates and causes – and above all, the labor movement,” they wrote in 2018.
According to campaign finance filings, Americans for Prosperity spent $6,750.45 to support Deshaies’ opponent, Katy Peternel. Her successful bid for the Republican nomination was aided by thousands of dollars in paid canvassing and eight mailers, according to the filings. Peternel raised $7,934.03 on top of that. That’s $14,684.48 between what Peternel raised and what AFP independently spent to support her campaign. There’s no search function on the Secretary of State’s campaign finance website that shows whether other groups also independently supported Peternel. Deshaies outspent her, spending $24,652.92, but still lost.
He wasn’t the only anti-right-to-work Republican to lose his primary to a candidate supported by Americans for Prosperity.
“Certainly my right-to-work stance brought Americans for Prosperity after me,” said Rep. Dennis Acton, a Fremont Republican. “I’m getting absolutely bombarded right now,” he said ahead of the primary.
He lost to Emily Phillips, who was endorsed by Americans for Prosperity. The organization reported spending $6,399 on mailers, paid canvassing, and digital ads to support her.
“You can’t beat that,” Acton said. He had not filed his campaign expenditures with the Secretary of State at the time of publication but said he raised around $2,250, enough for one limited mailing to 750 households.
Some Republicans say these efforts are not only reducing Republican opposition to right to work but changing the identity of their party.
“It used to be the Republicans were the working man’s party,” said Rep. John Klose, an Epsom Republican, who voted against right to work last year. “Things have changed.”
Klose lost his primary to Dan McGuire, who was endorsed by Americans for Prosperity.
Rep. Jim Allard, a Pittsfield Republican who opposed right to work and was also ousted in the primary, believes outside money is pushing the party further to the right. Allard was targeted by an anti-abortion group, Cornerstone Action, which paid for negative mailers against him.
“Assuming the current majority is maintained, I think we will see increasingly radical legislation,” said Allard, who sees this effort as an outgrowth of what’s happened with the libertarian Free State Movement. “The number of Free Staters occupying seats in the House has grown steadily, and it’s now a significant block that can both generate legislation and certainly can pass or defeat legislation.”
“When you look at how many other very experienced legislators opted not to run this time, it just opened the floodgates of opportunity for more radical views to come to the fore,” Allard said.
Replacing moderate Republicans with those who are further right would also affect other policy fights.
Allard had supported an exception to the state’s 24-week abortion ban, while Acton advocated for state spending and programs for mental health and addiction, as well as more state action on climate change. Both were defeated in the primary. Allard blamed campaign spending, which sponsored negative mailers targeting him. He wasn’t entirely sure who was footing the bill, and campaign finance is difficult to track.
Americans for Prosperity state director Greg Moore said the organization did not pay for any negative mail.
“Unprecedented amounts of money were spent in this small New Hampshire rural district in order to unseat me,” Allard said. “We’re talking major expenditures.”
Americans for Prosperity has roughly doubled the $79,588 it spent on the 2020 primary, spending $171,505 in 2022 so far. In 2020, Americans for Prosperity reported spending a total of $847,217 between the primary and general election.
“We’re willing to try any idea as far as what’s going to help us achieve our policy goals,” Moore said. “We felt as though candidates and elected office holders were more responsive with the prospect of an endorsement – and that’s true. It’s working.”
While Americans for Prosperity has had a presence in New Hampshire since 2010, it was only in 2020 that the organization began endorsing candidates and spending money on campaigns. Prior to that, the organization endorsed policies, not candidates, according to Moore.
“Our view is, ‘OK, what is it going to take to get this person elected?’” Moore said. “So the amount of money we put in is what we think we need to spend in order in order to be successful.”
Twenty-one of the 25 candidates Americans for Prosperity endorsed won their primaries, according to Moore. Moore said the organization does not believe right to work is union busting, but rather makes unions more representative by forcing them to earn members.
Twenty-seven states have right-to-work laws, according to Moore. Five have adopted right-to-work legislation since 2004.