In the aftermath of Jon Ossoff’s loss Tuesday in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, we’ve seen no shortage of panic and pontification about the dark times ahead for the Democratic Party. While a number of fair points have been made, the reality is that progressives are having the wrong conversation about the path forward.
It’s time to stop focusing on the symptoms rather than the problem.
Even if Ossoff had won, it would have been a short-term victory that did next to nothing to help Democrats build and secure lasting power in states across the country. Republicans currently control more than 30 governorships, the majority of state attorney general offices and more state legislatures than at any time since the Civil War. No individual congressional campaign victory will change that.
The enthusiasm for Ossoff and the $30 million spent on his narrow loss came about organically, and that was wonderful. But resources are most effective when they go toward things that are permanent and lasting. The progressive movement can’t continue to obsess over short-term gains. What’s most crucial is a long-term strategy that builds power from the state level up.
Why does this matter? Because like so many other districts across the country, Georgia’s 6th was drawn and gerrymandered by a Republican-controlled state legislature. Ossoff’s biggest opponent out of the starting gate was an unfairly drawn map. No amount of money could fix the fact that the district was drawn so reliably red that State Sen. Fran Miller (R-Ga.) boasted before the election that the “lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative.”
For decades, conservatives have focused on building a constellation of organizations across the states that has allowed them to wield a permanent infrastructure and dominate state-level policymaking and politics. They’ve won commanding legislative majorities and controlled the redistricting process.
Meanwhile, until recently, progressives have focused almost exclusively on cycle-to-cycle elections, spending billions over the past few decades on mostly federal candidates. The Georgia special election was only the latest iteration. If the progressive movement wants to see real, lasting change, it has to begin the hard work of addressing the structural barriers that have stood in the way of building and maintaining this state power.
That means starting with substantial investments in organizational infrastructure to support movement building, grassroots activism and state legislative engagement and policymaking.
Doing this will provide greater capacity to leverage the energy and organization occurring at the grassroots level in states around the country. It will also allow for more localized narrative and policy development that reaches people in their own communities, rather than merely offering talking points that came from Washington. It will also offer a deeper understanding of which party is actually fighting for working families and not just looking out for corporate interests.
This also means a significant commitment to investing in down-ballot races — especially those that are critical in determining control of redistricting after the 2020 census. 2017 and 2018 present a critical opportunity for Democrats to regain control of governorships and state legislative chambers.
My organization, the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), serves as a strategy and resource center for more than 1,500 legislators working to advance progressive policies across all 50 states. Together, we are starting to turn the tide. But in order to bring out the full-scale progressive change we seek in statehouses across the country, we need reinforcements.
Only then can we secure big and bold victories that gain momentum across the nation and eventually trickle up to the federal level. Only then can we pass fairly drawn district maps that ensure a young, upstart candidate running in a special U.S. House election doesn’t have the game rigged against him or her from the start.
Between 2017 and 2018, there are 38 gubernatorial elections, hundreds of state legislative races and other down-ballot elections that could significantly change the power dynamics in this country. This is where donors and others need to focus more of their attention.
This year, there’s an opportunity to flip a legislative chamber in Washington state by winning one state Senate special election that determines control of the chamber. There’s also an opportunity to make significant gains in the Virginia House of Delegates this fall, and Democrats are fielding their highest number of candidates in years in 2017, covering 88 out of 100 House districts.
If progressives can focus and invest in this type of power-building over the next few years, they will begin to win and see meaningful changes occur, and they won’t have to keep pinning their hopes on long-shot moral victories like Tuesday's race in Georgia.
Nick Rathod is the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a national resource and strategy center that supports state legislators in advancing and defending progressive policies across the country. He was the former special assistant to the president and deputy director for Intergovernmental Affairs for the Obama White House.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.