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Memo to Democratic donors: The path to power passes through the states

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What do Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have in common, other than being the swing states that flipped Donald Trump into the Presidency?  All are among the many states in which Democrats lost control of their state legislature in the past decade. For Democrats, now at their lowest ebb in power since at least the 1920’s, the results of that loss in state-level influence have been both catastrophic and entirely predictable.

For years, movers and shakers in national Democratic politics – donors, strategists, and national party figures – have largely ignored state elections.  From the remove of Washington, New York and San Francisco, state issues have seemed too small, and legislatures too atomized, to generate any real impact.  Nutty Republican bills from the states have been viewed as Colbert fodder, not something to be given serious attention.

{mosads}Coming off their most improbable victory yet, the Republicans would beg to differ.  For a decade, the GOP has systematically funded efforts to accumulate legislative power at the state level, and the results are astonishing. 

Since 2008, Republicans have taken nine hundred legislative districts from Democrats, securing control not just in the South, where many voters oppose President Obama, but in such diverse locales as Michigan and Maine.  Republican efforts reflect a prescient understanding of the vital – but often obscure – roles that state legislative victories play in national politics.  Democratic decision makers need to understand why the states matter, and take an active role in reversing Republican gains.

1. Gerrymandering:

At this point, it is obvious that our gerrymandered Congressional districts have been a huge drag on the Obama administration and the nation, not only cementing a Republican majority in the House but ensuring that the particular Republicans elected are free to engage in such productive activity as moving to repeal the Affordable Care Act over fifty times.  Such obstructionism is in large part the result of the 2010 election, in which Republicans “flipped” twenty legislative chambers, increasing the number of legislative districts under their complete redistricting control from 66 to 198.  Unless this process is reversed in 2020, we can expect to have the force of the much touted “emerging Democratic majority” significantly blunted by the raw backroom power of GOP operatives wielding sophisticated mapping models. 

2. Voter suppression:

To control a state legislature is to control the machinery and rules of all elections in that jurisdiction.  The Republicans have wielded this power aggressively to systematically assault the voting rights of minorities, students and others who tend to vote against the Republican agenda.  From the Crosscheck system operational in Michigan and Pennsylvania that systematically dis-enrolls voters based on dubious name matches to voter ID laws like that passed in Wisconsin, barriers to voting have become the stock in trade of virtually all Republican majorities.  And with the American Legislative Exchange Council and other national groups pushing voter suppression as a front-burner GOP agenda item, Democrats should expect such laws to only proliferate and, when faced with court challenges, to mutate anywhere Republicans hold power.

3. Recruiting:

State legislators serve close to the people, attuned to their evolving needs and expectations; every day they are necessarily honing the arguments needed to unify citizens behind public action.  President Obama has admitted that he was often a disappointing communicator before he entered the Illinois Senate; he emerged ready to run for President.  Recruiting state candidates should be a particular priority for Democrats, because it is typically only through service at the state level that talented individuals who are not wealthy – like our President – develop the support networks they need to play on the national stage.  Rahm Emanuel and Steve Israel will no doubt tell you that the toughest part of leading the DCCC is finding tested candidates ready and willing to put themselves on the line – a deep bench of state officials is essential to that process.

4. Turnout: 

Ask your favorite strategist – there is no more energized machine for turning out Democratic base voters than a Democratic legislator with his or her back to the wall.  Developing relationships with base voters and then inspiring/pushing them to go vote is job number one for such political workhorses, and once elected they can be counted on to reliably perform the task season after season.  All of the states in which Secretary Clinton narrowly lost were dotted with highly contested legislative races; while the numbers are still being crunched, there can be little doubt that energized Republican candidates turned many Trump supporters into Trump voters.

And don’t forget about all those bad laws… 

As John Oliver recently observed, where in Washington it often seems like nothing is happening, in the legislatures everything is happening.  Carried along on a river of dark money and the consultants, policy advisers etc… that go with it, Republican-controlled state legislatures are daily pushing a systematic, national assault on voting rights, workers’ rights, environmental safeguards, choice, and the courts.  In many cases, the effect is to directly undermine national Democratic priorities – the most glaring example being the twenty states where healthcare access under the Affordable Care Act was for years thwarted for millions of Americans.  Ominously, much Republican legislation, such as restrictions on collective bargaining, is specifically designed to lock in Republican power.  Legislators are by nature wily and highly devoted to their craft; it is simply naïve to assume that long term social change can be fully implemented on political terrain that is controlled by focused adversaries bent on thwarting it at every turn.

So what’s next?  Democrats in the states need what their Republican counterparts have had for a decade – a well-funded national apparatus dedicated to the specific task of winning down-ballot elections.  This can take many forms, and much of the needed machinery is likely already in place within the DNC, the DLCC and their allies.  But to be real it requires long term funding and a sustained commitment to turning red legislatures blue again.  Until that happens, Democrats will continue to see their candidates win all the debates but come up short on Election Day.

Mike Stewart is a State Representative in Tennessee, where he is the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

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

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