Election Day 2022: Good (And Some Bad) News for State Corporate Power Politics
Big tech antagonists did well, but so did megadeal boosters.
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With the dust still settling on Election Day 2022, a lot of major media pixels are being spilled about what the federal results mean, particularly with the vaunted “red wave” in the House becoming more like a red drip. But there were lots of important races at the state and local level too, which I’m going to break down a bit here.
Of course, trying to ascribe any overarching reason or theory to an election in a massive country with hugely diverse voting populations is going to be, in many ways, a fool’s errand, with oversimplification being an inevitability. So take these more as noteworthy trends — two good and one bad — rather than maxims, which should be informing campaigns and organizing efforts going forward, and that can also provide some stage-setting for future legislative and court battles that are going to come in 2023.
Corporate Power Is a Statehouse Winner: Taking on corporate power was an issue, albeit an understated one, at the federal level, but it really stuck out in a couple of states.
First on that list has to be Minnesota: Attorney General Keith Ellison bested the punditry and the polls to win a second term, running explicitly on challenging corporations and reforming and using antitrust law, as opposed to his hedge fund cartoon villain opponent, who campaigned on gutting the AG’s consumer protection division. (You can watch Ellison, myself, and my colleagues talk about the importance of state antitrust policy here.) He ran perhaps the most anti-corporate power AG campaign in the country, and pulled out a tough race that didn’t look great even just a few weeks ago.
But that’s not all. Minnesota Democrats held the state House and flipped the state Senate, giving them a trifecta, after a year in which they explicitly made antitrust and corporate power over labor a key part of their legislative efforts. Great champions like Rep. Zack Stephenson, Rep. Steve Elkins, Rep. Emma Greenman, and Rep. Dan Wolgamott led a very impressive agenda that, if not the overriding reason Democrats had a good night, definitely contributed, especially when put alongside Ellison’s campaign, giving them a unified and coherent message.
Next is Pennsylvania: Lots of media types are rightfully focused on how Lt. Governor John Fetterman flipped a federal Senate seat for the Democrats, and how Attorney General Josh Shapiro cruised in the governor’s race, both of whom made populism and challenging corporations a centerpiece of their campaigns.
But they shouldn’t get all the credit: Pennsylvania House Democrats have for months been promoting an aggressive agenda based on corporate price-fixing, price-gouging, and antitrust reform, led by Rep. Sara Innamorato, Rep. Nick Pisciottano, Sen. Katie Muth, and many others. They didn’t just introduce legislation and forget about it. They talked about it, held hearings, wrote op-eds, and were generally out there on the everyday effects corporations have over the economic lives of their constituents.
Again, I don’t think you can underestimate the synergy between the state campaigns and the federal ones, and it paid some serious dividends: It looks like Democrats will control the Pennsylvania House for the first time in years.
There are surely other states where similar dynamics played out. But these two caught my eye.
Big Tech Antagonists Won Big in Attorneys General Races: At the forefront of the movement to rein in corporate power is challenging Big Tech, from Google’s power over the online advertising market to Amazon’s power over logistics and e-commerce. And attorneys general who have taken up the fight there tended to be rewarded by voters.
There’s the aforementioned Ellison, of course, but plenty of others: Tish James in New York, who has led major cases against Facebook; Dave Yost in Ohio, who is suing to make Google essentially a public utility; Phil Weiser in Colorado, who has also been challenging Google; Ken Paxton, in Texas, who, other legal issues aside, has been good on going after Google’s ad tech dominance; and while he wasn’t on the ballot, Amazon antagonist Karl Racine’s chosen successor Brian Schwalb won in my hometown of D.C.
Others who have taken high-profile stands against corporate power also won: For example, Rob Bonta in California and Kwame Raoul in Illinois both recently joined Racine in an attempt to stop the grocery chain Albertson’s from paying out a massive dividend to its private equity owners ahead of a proposed merger with Krogers. The dividend payment is a transparent attempt to cook the books, cash out, and hobble Albertsons in order to grease the skids for the merger. Both won re-election handily. (Their suit was unsuccessful, but Washington State AG Bob Ferguson brought a similar claim under state law and won.) And if Kris Mayes wins her race in Arizona, she’ll be an incoming AG who explicitly mentioned monopoly power in her campaign materials.
Again, lots of factors surely went into these races, and these folks mostly won in states where their partisan affiliation is in line with their state’s current voting patterns, but their successes surely mean that more creative efforts at taking on Big Tech are coming next year — and hopefully other industries too.
Megadeal Governors All Won: Okay, now for the bad news: All of the governors who have been promoting major corporate subsidy deals in recent months won their re-election races, lending more evidence to the already existing heap of it that massive corporate handouts can be potent political tools.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul campaigned hard on the handout she negotiated for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, as well as a massive $5.5 billion subsidy for Micron, and won despite a more-vigorous-than-expected Republican challenger. Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, who negotiated giant deals with Rivian and Hyundai, won as well.
But that’s not all. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly campaigned hard on the massive secret deal her state negotiated with Panasonic and won. So too did Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, he of the Intel deal, as well as a large one with General Motors. And finally, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who backed a secret deal with GM so egregious it caused dozens of members of the state legislature to support a bill banning such secrecy, cruised as well.
Now, I am certainly not sad that some of these governors won. It’s just a real problem that they weren’t hurt — and a few were probably helped — by their massive subsidy dealing. The only exception, I’d argue, was Hochul: I think she was hurt on the margins by a sports billionaire handout, as part of a larger pattern of pro-corporate policy that pushed both ends of the political spectrum away from her.
The stat I always pull out — that one of the most reliable ways to predict if a state will increase its corporate subsidy spending in a given year is simply to check if the incumbent governor is up for re-election — held very true this year. I generally feel optimistic about the narrative on corporate subsidies going my way, but there’s clearly still a lot of work to do.
The only promising electoral outcome I saw on the subsidy front was an opponent of developer handouts winning a race to become president of the St. Louis city council — which is great, because that city is a stew of subsidy sob stories, but not a whole lot to hang a hat on either.
I’m sure I’m missing some key things that happened at the state and local level, so please flag them in the comments. And later in the year I’ll have my annual preview of 2023 state legislative sessions.
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— Pat Garofalo