The most important pledge Democratic presidential candidates can make

Getty Images, Stefani Reynolds

Next week, more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates will gather in Miami for two days of debate to discuss who’s best positioned to beat Donald Trump. They will make pledges on education, health care and taxes. But, here’s the most important pledge each and every candidate should make: To rebuild the Democratic Party from the state house up.

Here’s why:  The party that controls state legislatures after Election Day in 2020 will redraw congressional districts for the next decade.  As President George W. Bush’s senior political advisor Karl Rove wrote, “He who controls redistricting controls Congress.”  If Democrats fail to turn key state legislatures blue, the next Democratic president will be stuck with a conservative, gerrymandered Congress for another decade. That means no health care reform, no tax reform, and no gun reform for the next ten years.

There’s another equally important reason: State legislatures remain a laboratory for really conservative ideas. In my home state, Republicans turned the clock back on our state’s long-held progressive tradition. In 2013, after taking total control of both the state legislature and governor’s mansion, Republicans passed one of the most restrictive voter identification laws, approved the most anti-LGBTQ bill in the country (the now infamous “bathroom bill”), slashed corporate and income tax rates, and dramatically cut public education funding.

Compared to Democrats, Republicans have long better understood the importance of state legislative elections. Exactly a decade ago, the late Thomas Hofeller outlined how Republicans could target key states houses before 2010, a redistricting year.  Hofeller’s presentation contained this critical statement, “Not playing is NOT an option.”  In less than two years and with $30 million, the so-called REDMAP project  flipped 21 state legislatures. They also controlled both chambers in 25 states, including Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The real result of the REDMAP project came in 2012 when Republicans controlled the United States House of Representatives by a 33-seat margin, even though Democratic candidates secured more votes overall.

And, compared to Democrats, Republican state legislative candidates receive significantly more support in terms of national leadership and national money.  Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the Republican National Committee and counselor to President George W. Bush, was a key architect of the REDMAP project.  Recently, Vice President Mike Pence headlined a fundraiser for Virginia Republicans who seek to hold on to a majority in the legislature this November. Last month, President Trump tweeted that Republicans “must WAKE UP to the Democrats State by State power grab.”

Aside from former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Democratic state legislative candidates haven’t received the same support from national leadership. The lack of national leadership has resulted in a number of organizations now focused on winning back state legislatures like Future Now, Ascend, Flippable, Sister District, and Forward Majority.

The fundraising differences are even more stark. A few years ago, the Republican State Leadership Committee, the group that led the REDMAP project, created REDMAP 2020 that aims to keep state houses red in key battleground states. REDMAP 2020 plans to raise $125 million. In comparison, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee plans to raise $30 million. The fact remains that national Democratic donors continue to be seduced by presidential and congressional races rather than state legislative races.

Ultimately, the responsibility for winning back state legislatures falls not on progressive national donors or national leadership, but on the next Democratic president of the United States. Given the importance of who controls state legislatures in 2020, every single Democratic candidate for president needs to step up and help Democratic state legislative candidates play catch-up after we’ve been left behind for more than a decade now. That’s why each and every Democratic candidate should pledge that he or she will headline a fundraiser for Democratic legislative caucuses in state houses that are within striking distance of control in 2020. And, that commitment should continue once he or she becomes president.

Fortunately, these presidential candidates already have a playbook with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina. After winning his election in 2016, Cooper spent the next two years headlining dozens and dozens of fundraisers for Democratic Senate and House candidates. He also raised an additional $7 million that helped level the playing field on fundraising. As a result of these efforts, in 2018, Cooper, in partnership with the Democratic House and Senate Caucuses, broke the supermajority in both chambers.

In recent years, North Carolina Senate Republicans consistently outraised Senate Democrats by four to five times. But, Cooper’s contribution of $1.6 million during the 2018 cycle to the North Carolina Senate Democrats helped us pick up six seats, including three Senate districts carried by President Trump. In the end, we went from 15 to 21 Democrats in the State, increasing our caucus by 40 percent — one of the largest increases in any state chamber in the country.

A commitment from presidential candidates helps Democrats at the state level in two ways. First, a fundraiser headlined by presidential candidates allows them to convert their small donors to state races. The Democratic National Committee already requires that presidential candidates must receive donations from 65,000 unique donors as one of two ways to qualify for the Miami debates. These small donors are critical to offset the Republican State Leadership Committee and state Republican caucuses that rely heavily on corporate fundraising. In 2018, for example, Republicans running for state Senate received $3.8 million in corporate political action committee dollars compared to Democrats who received $800,000. Fundraisers helmed by presidential candidates can help make up the difference by encouraging their small donors to contribute at the state level.

Second, given how closely a state legislator’s fate is tied to top of the ticket, it makes sense to build a bottom-up approach. Rather than view the presidential candidate as having coattails, we need a real grassroots effort when it comes to knocking on doors and listening to voters. A state legislative candidate is far more likely to build a permanent grassroots apparatus compared to the temporary presidential campaign field office. Why? A state legislative candidate lives in the community, sends his or her children to local schools, and volunteers at his or her church, synagogue or mosque. State house candidates draw volunteers from a tightly-knit social circle, including the PTA mom or soccer-coach dad. In comparison, a presidential campaign drops a recent college graduate from out-of-state with no roots in the community. And, once the campaign ends, that presidential field operative leaves.

Going into 2020, Democratic presidential candidates need to decide whether to embrace the same old trickle-down approach that doesn’t help state legislative candidates, or carry out a strategy that lifts all boats. For all the progressive policy ideas these candidates roll out, none of them, I repeat, none of them will pass without a progressive Congress. That progressive Congress relies directly on Democrats controlling state houses across the country by 2020. This is what all Democratic presidential candidates need to understand: To paraphrase Thomas Hofeller, not playing for our state houses is not an option.

Jay J. Chaudhuri is North Carolina Senate minority whip.

Tags Democratic congressional gains Donald Trump Eric Holder Karl Rove Mike Pence Redistricting REDMAP

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