Democrats must tap into the secret power of state races
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Hidden underneath all the rhetoric and hype of our political system is a secret that holds the key to political power in this country. It’s not the sexiest secret, but it’s one that demands attention and requires resources to harness it. Republicans have quietly built their political strategy around it for nearly a generation.

That secret is hidden within control of the 50 states. States are the implementers and appropriators of many federal and state programs. They also hold primary or final responsibility for the construction, maintenance, or regulation of things like public safety, health, education, environment, housing, land use, water, transportation and civil rights. 

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Most importantly, states have control over our representative democracy itself in the form of their ability to draw congressional districts through gerrymandering once every decade.  

 

Whichever party controls the states also controls governing and, ultimately, the power over the republic. Conservatives have understood the power of states dating all the way back to Jefferson, and while Democrats have focused nearly exclusively on Washington, D.C., the GOP has oriented its political strategies to cement power at the state level. 

This focus has paid off, as Republicans now have historic control of almost every state office, which has also won them complete control over the boundaries of more than 200 congressional districts. Until Democrats reorient themselves to fully understand how power works, our country will continue to suffer under the management of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP-Trump trade fight boils over with threat to cars Trump: Meetings on potential North Korea summit going 'very well' Freed American 'overwhelmed with gratitude' after being released from Venezuela MORE and the GOP.

Take, for example, what happened this past week in Georgia’s 6th House district. The energy in that race was amazing. The organizing was powerful and something that the district had not witnessed in decades. Celebrities and high-profile politicians stumped for the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff. 

The results were inspiring — in a district that was once held by Newt Gingrich, a Democrat nearly won outright. Same thing in Kansas’s 4th House district, where, just a few weeks ago, James Thompson came within seven points of retaking a seat in a state that Donald Trump won by 27 points last November.

While the stories coming out of these deeply red districts are indications of cracks in the Republican firewall, the fact is that no amount of organizing — or even a well-timed visit by Samuel L. Jackson — could have turned these districts blue. Until Democrats acknowledge the structural deficiencies in these districts and invest in strategies to address them, the status quo will remain. 

There is, however, a path forward, but Democrats need to decide whether they are willing to invest the necessary resources and put in the hard work to change course and focus on winning in the states. The opportunity to do so is at the party’s front door. In fact, in more than a dozen states across the country, Democrats are only a handful of seats away from retaking control of state legislative chambers.  

Additionally, there are 38 gubernatorial races in 2017 and 2018, and, according to Rasmussen Reports, over half of them start in the competitive category — including 10 toss-ups, five of which are controlled by Republicans.  

This year, Virginia is ground zero. Democrats are close to regaining control of at least one legislative chamber and maintaining the governorship in the state, which would allow them to veto and redraw Republican-favored maps in 2020. 

The truth, especially in many of these state legislative races, is that a little amount of money and slight upticks in turnout can completely shift the direction of that district, and we are seeing signs of some of this happening already.  In Iowa’s 45th State Senate district — a district that Clinton won by 16 points in November — the Democrat, Jim Lykam, won by almost 50 percentage points in a special election in December.  

Just a few months ago in Delaware, another special election saw massive organizing and turnout that led to a Democratic victory, allowing the party to remain in control of the state legislature. 

These are just a few examples of indications that things can indeed change. However, for the Democratic Party to win, it must take a long, strategic view that begins and ends in the states.  

A view that is focused on unleashing the energy within the progressive base and unlocking the secret to political power in this country — instead of continuing to ignore it at our own peril.

 

Nick Rathod is the executive director of SiX Action, an independent strategy and advocacy organization that seeks to aid in the development and advancement of a progressive agenda in the states. He is the former special assistant to the president and deputy director for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama White House.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.