The Weak Link: Winning State Elections

This has not been a positive year in state legislatures, and there’s a good chance that, for progressives, this may be the worst session in decades.

Wisconsin imposed “right-to-work.” Nevada suspended prevailing wage rules for school construction projects. South Dakota lowered the minimum wage by a dollar an hour for workers under age 18. Many states are slashing funds for public education and social services. Several are legalizing the carrying of guns on college campuses or abolishing the 80-year-old requirement of a permit to carry a concealed firearm. Utah brought back firing squads as a means of execution. Even the Indiana “religious liberty” battle didn’t have a happy ending: the law they passed is not a good one, it’s just less bad.

The reason for the states’ lunge to the right is clear—the GOP gained more than 300 state legislative seats in the 2014 elections. Republicans now control 69 of the 99 state legislative bodies in the U.S. (if we include Nebraska, where lawmakers are technically nonpartisan but effectively Republican), while Democrats control only 30. That’s the most legislative chambers Republicans have ever held.

Put another way, there are now 25 states where both the legislative and executive branches are entirely controlled by Republicans, if we include Nebraska and Alaska (where the governor ran as an independent but is effectively a Republican). In contrast, there are only seven states with a Democratic legislature and governor: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In four additional states (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey), Democrats control the legislature but progress is stymied by a GOP governor.

It should be obvious that progressives desperately need to engineer a strong comeback in 2016. It’s not just that 150 million Americans living in GOP states are subject to regressive rule. The longer the right wing holds power, the more “gamechanger” policies they enact—like voter ID and union busting—designed to rig the electoral game for the long term. Even more important, it’s nearly impossible to take back the congressional redistricting process in 2021-22 unless we start winning state legislative seats in 2016. Progressives need to put in place strong incumbents who can withstand a difficult 2018 election cycle. It would be sheer folly to wait until 2020 to try to win back legislative chambers for reapportionment.

The old saying goes, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” In state politics, progressives have some very strong links indeed. Over the years, our movement has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in terrific policy research, excellent polling, and a lot of hardworking grassroots organizations and activists. But because of one glaring weak link, conservative majorities block good policies and enact bad ones. Progressive investments at the state level are stymied by a distinct lack of focus on winning elections there.

The good news is that our movement could do very well in 2016. We could conceivably move legislatures from split to Democratic control in seven states: Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. And we could possibly move legislatures from Republican to split control in eight others: Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (although half of these are longshots).

Fortunately, 2016 presents Democratic legislative candidates with a wealth of advantages:

  • A lot of the seats won by the GOP are naturally blue—it’s easier to take them back;
  • Turnout in 2016 will create a much more Democratic-friendly electorate;
  • Conservatives’ extremism in 2015-16 can be used against them; and
  • The national narrative should provide a much better environment for our candidates than the 2014 narrative—especially if we do the work to promote a smart, state-level progressive agenda for our candidates to run on.

Can progressives re-cast our weak link in the coming 18 months? Absolutely, and the path to victory is straightforward. As for campaign mechanics, we need to contest every key legislative district; recruit the strongest progressive prospects to run; provide thorough training and political support to candidates and campaign managers; and funnel direct contributions to the races that count most. Given our losses in recent cycles, this is no small undertaking, but it can be done.

In addition, we need to use the rest of 2015 to design and organize around a compelling state policy agenda that energizes our base, pulls swing voters our way, and wedges the right wing. I’m talking about a real agenda—not a laundry list of policy ideas or a “narrative.” We’ve got to drive a set of robust policies in multiple states and localities that, together, illustrates an overall theme and shows explicitly that we’re on the voters’ side and conservatives are not. And we can’t wait until the summer or fall of 2016 to promote that agenda—we need to push our policies hard in the 2016 legislative sessions, forcing the right to publicly alienate the middle.

Strong progressives tend to have their own priorities: economic equality or environmental protection or criminal justice or social justice for women, African Americans, immigrants or LGBT people. And we tend to work in silos, with some groups doing electoral work or civic engagement or voter registration and others developing policy or networking elected officials or organizing advocacy campaigns. Now, no matter our policy or political priorities, progressives need to link up in every way possible to drive toward one goal—winning the states back for the American people. The alternative is political disaster.

Gloria Totten is President of Progressive Majority, Progressive Majority Action, and the Public Leadership Institute.

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