Are Republicans behind Tesla sales bans? Data offers clues.

Tesla supporters commonly assume state auto-dealer lobbyists work with Republican legislators to enact laws banning direct sales of Tesla's electric cars to retail buyers. But is it true?

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/File
A man looks at Tesla Motors' Model S P85 at its showroom in Beijing.

It seems to be a common assumption among Tesla Motors supporters: State auto-dealer lobbyists work with Republican legislators to enact laws banning direct sales of Tesla's electric cars to retail buyers.

But is it true?

An article last month in The New York Times offers a few data points that may help assess the supposition.

While the article looks mainly at support among Republicans for Uber, the car-service app for smartphones, it also alludes to the fight between Tesla and state dealer groups.

It covers conflicts between national Republican Party support for Uber--as an entrepreneurial service that cuts into "taxi unions’ profits”--and regulations in Pennsylvania put in place by Republican appointees that ban UberX.

It quotes Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus, who wrote in support of Uber, "It should be consumers, not government bureaucrats or legislators, that decide what companies get our business."

Other industries covered include licensing of interior decorators and coffin sales to funeral parlors. And one paragraph mentions the battle between Tesla and lobbyists for dealer interests.

Author Josh Barro writes that 22 states permit direct sales of automobiles by Tesla to retail buyers.

Of those, he says, a majority--14 of them--voted for President Obama.

And he suggests that Democratic California, Illinois, and New York "have freer markets in autoretailing than Texas," which is presently Republican.

Barro also digs up a five-year-old article by statistician Nate Silver that looked at political donations bycar dealers.

There, the imbalance was crystal-clear: Fully 88 percent of those donations went to Republican candidates, and just 12 percent to Democrats.

That might suggest a propensity among Republican state legislators to support the interests of car dealers over those of electric-car buyers.

Mojo Motors/Tesla

Indeed, a map of the states where it's legal for Tesla to sell cars directly correlates to some degree--but not perfectly--with a map of the blue states considered Democratic.

And many of the recent anti-Tesla laws have been in states with Republican governors and/or Republican-controlled legislatures.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, for instance, last month signed a franchise bill--including anti-Tesla language added in a closed reconciliation process--that was called "corrupt politics at its worst" by one analyst of the state's legislation.

In the end, the Times concludes that support for business innovation and free-market entrepreneurs across a variety of industries by Republicans is not nearly as clear-cut as the party would have it.

As the article says: "In practice, it’s not clear Republicans are any more pro-market than Democrats when it comes to business regulation."

And in the case of car-dealer lobbying, a case could be made that the correlation works in the opposite direction.

Given the Preibus quote, it would be understandable if some Tesla buyers question his party's dedication to free-market principles in their case.

The topic surely seems worthy of further study.

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