DENVER — Flyers stacked in mailboxes in central South Dakota like snow during a high plains blizzard: “Transgender sex education in schools?” we asked. “Vote Sex Ed Radical Mary Duvall for State Senate.”
The senders were part of a $58,000 campaign against the five-term Republican lawmaker, a huge sum of money in a place where the cost of running for a state seat is typically in the five figures. Despite the subject matter of the attack ads, Duvall was targeted not for her stance on sex education, but for her opposition to a long-running attempt by some conservatives to force a convention to amend the US Constitution.
“I knew they were mad at me, but I had no idea this was going to happen during my primary campaign,” said Duvall, who ended up losing his race by 176 votes.
Duvall has opposed legislation that would have added South Dakota to 19 other states calling for a gathering known as a convention of states, following a plan hatched by a conservative group that wants to change parts of the founding document of the United States. When that number reaches two-thirds of the states — or 34 — depending on the procedure set out in the Constitution, a convention will convene with the power to amend the 235-year-old document.
The campaign against Duvall was part of a push for more than $600,000 in at least five states earlier this year by the group, Convention of States Action, and its affiliates in the Republican primaries to elect sympathetic lawmakers who could add more of States to his column. Much of the money comes from groups that do not have to disclose their donors, obscuring the identity of who is funding the push to change the Constitution.
Mark Meckler, the group’s chairman and former leader of the Tea Party Patriots, released a brief statement saying the group was committed to being active midterm “in a big way”.
For years, Convention of States Action has been a staple of the conservative political scene. But his engagement in primary campaigns marks an escalation at a time when parts of the conservative movement are testing the limits of the nation’s political rulebook, pushing aggressive tactics ranging from gerrymandering to vote restrictions.
The Congress Group’s spending record is uneven. In South Dakota, where the group and its affiliates have spent more than $200,000 to aim for four state Senate seats, Duvall was the only one of its targets to lose. And the challenger who beat her, Jim Mehlhaff, said in an interview that he thought the band’s interference hurt him.
“I didn’t appreciate the negative tone of their senders. It probably cost me a few votes,” said Mehlhaff, a former city commissioner from Pierre who had his own base of support in the district before the States Convention intervened. “It’s South Dakota. People don’t like negative campaigns.
Mehlhaff was baffled that a possible constitutional convention had mattered so much in his race: “The convention of the states is not my problem at all,” he said.
Proponents of a convention argue that it is the best way to amend the Constitution — in particular to take power from Congress, which must approve by a two-thirds vote any proposed amendment that does not come from a convention. Yet no amendments have been implemented through convention since the Constitution was ratified in 1788.
Proponents say any amendment resulting from the convention would have to be approved by even more states than necessary to call it – three-quarters, or 38 of them – ensuring that the only changes would be measures enjoying broad support. The GOP would have the upper hand there, however, as it controls legislatures in 30 states.
A Liberal group is pushing for a convention to change campaign finance laws that has won support from four states, while another effort by Conservatives is seeking to force through a balanced budget amendment. The States Convention group is more vague about its goals, saying it seeks a rally that could only pass amendments to “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose budgetary restraints, and impose term limits.” to federal officials.
That worries many Democrats, who see the push as a partisan effort to enshrine conservative goals in the Constitution. But several conservatives also backed down, fearing a convention would open up the document to changes they wouldn’t favor, like gun control or campaign spending.
“A lot of things can happen that we can’t predict” if there’s a constitutional convention, said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. “A lot of Republicans are conservative by temperament and don’t like take big leaps into the unknown, and they’ll be seen as dragging their feet.
The convention group has had some success lately. Earlier this year, he persuaded South Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature to approve a motion for a convention, making it the 19th state, all Republican-led, to sign. But it has stalled in some staunchly conservative states such as South Dakota, whose state Senate has repeatedly rejected resolutions for a convention.
Duvall said it was because Republican voters did not want a constitutional rewrite.
“The majority of my constituents that I spoke to said, ‘No, it’s a bad idea and it’s dangerous,'” Duvall said.
Robert Natelson, a retired law professor who previously served as an adviser to the Convention of States Action, said it was the result of a fear campaign. He researched historic state conventions and said they had clear procedures and boundaries. They have performed throughout the nation’s history with varying accomplishments, on topics ranging from the War of 1812 to how some western states would share water from the Colorado River.
“It was a process designed for people to use,” Natelson said. “If you think it’s okay, if you’re in the 15% of the population that has a favorable view of Congress, then you don’t want a convention.”
The movement uses money to fight skepticism. The Convention of States Action and its affiliate foundation said they raised more than $10 million in 2020, according to IRS documents. As nonprofits, organizations do not need to disclose most of their donors.
Recent spending by the States Convention has gone through several newly created political groups that have directed campaign money across the country, largely shielding donors from disclosure.
“They’ve gone out of their way to set up a network of black money groups to hide where the money is coming from and evade reporting requirements,” said Arn Pearson, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, who filed complaints with the authorities. in Arizona and Montana against the network’s campaign apparatus.
In Montana, the network spent $126,000 on radio ads and direct mail to support two state lawmakers and a candidate for a State House seat after repeatedly failing to get a resolution through the Legislative Assembly. The state political practices commissioner found that the group had not registered as a political organization and had not reported its campaign expenses.
According to a disclosure report it filed in Michigan, the group also spent more than $40,000 supporting Statehouse candidates there. He spent $10,000 on state races in North Carolina. A group he formed in Idaho said it spent more than $100,000 ahead of the state’s primary on May 17, including more than $75,000 against state Rep. Judy Boyle, a conservative who co-wrote a column with a liberal lawmaker about why a states convention was a bad idea.
A seven-term lawmaker, Boyle said she was warned the group would target her and said their radio ads falsely claimed the local right to life group supported her opponent.
“I knew then that the band believed the end justified the means and that they would do anything to smear me, which they did,” Boyle said via text message.
She eventually won her election – by six votes.
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