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Taking It to The States

“It is time for us to dream again. It is time for us to get back to making big dreams real again.”

"It will be a party that unequivocally rejects austerity, proposes an urgent timeline for addressing climate change, and unapologetically aligns itself with organized labor and civil rights groups in the fight for justice and equality." (Photo: Heath Hinegardner)

"It will be a party that unequivocally rejects austerity, proposes an urgent timeline for addressing climate change, and unapologetically aligns itself with organized labor and civil rights groups in the fight for justice and equality." (Photo: Heath Hinegardner)

What happens in state capitals after this year’s November 6 election is far more likely to bring real change to America than what happens in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. That’s not an excuse for neglecting federal election contests this fall. But it is an argument for taking what happens in the states a whole lot more seriously.

In recent years, engagement with local and state electoral competition has suffered due to the nationalization of our politics, a trend accelerated by the nonstop media circus known as the Trump Administration. Yet the biggest political stories of 2019 might be coming from Augusta and Annapolis and Albany. The states, which former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once referred to as “laboratories of democracy,” could be pivot points toward a progressive future.

A new Democratic Party will be on the November ballot, one that unequivocally rejects austerity, proposes an urgent timeline for addressing climate change, and unapologetically aligns itself with organized labor and civil rights groups. 

Let’s imagine that the 2018 election cycle maintains the pattern of midterm wave elections that reject the party that prevailed in the previous presidential election. This pattern developed in the 2000s and has held steady since then. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush was reelected with relative ease, and then in 2006 Democrats swept to big victories in Congressional and state races. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won big, and then in 2010 Republicans made historic gains in federal and state contests. In 2012, Obama was reelected by a comfortable margin and then in 2014 Republicans consolidated their hold on Congress and extended their control of the states.

If this pattern is predictive, then the first election following Republican Donald Trump’s narrow 2016 victory (he actually lost the popular vote but prevailed on the margins in the Electoral College) should be favorable to the Democrats. Add in the destabilization of the Republican Party by Trump’s erratic leadership and frequent embraces of extremism—and a huge departure rate among Congressional Republicans (including House Speaker Paul Ryan) who are not seeking reelection—and there’s a good case to be made that Democrats will take the U.S. House and even things up in the U.S. Senate.

That will check and balance Trump, but not necessarily turn the course of the federal government. In part that’s true because of the timidity of Democratic “leaders” including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, who have already signaled that impeachment is off the table (just as they did when Democrats took charge in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term).

Also, because so many Democratic seats are up for grabs in 2018, the Senate could remain in Republican hands or be so narrowly split that conservative Democrats and Republicans could thwart progressive advances, just as they did during so much of Obama’s presidency. And, barring a major plot twist in special counsel Robert Mueller’s storyline, Trump is likely to cling to his perch in the White House.

But on the state level, there is a much greater prospect for meaningful, progressive change. The Republican gains of 2010 and 2014 could begin to be reversed in the swing states of the Great Lakes and the Upper Midwest. The red states in the remainder of the country could see a surge in anti-Trump and anti-Republican voting. And states where Democrats are in a strong position could realize the promise of a progressive turn that extends from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run.

In current swing states, such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida, progressive Democrats could well win crowded primaries and then replace rightwing Republican governors. And in the very blue states on the east and west coasts, a new crop of progressive Democrats could take charge. Consider New York, where actress and activist Cynthia Nixon is mounting a bold primary challenge to Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, a conniving corporatist who makes some liberal noises at election time but invariably governs from the corrupt center.

Nixon’s “for the many, not the few” challenge to Cuomo will, by the time the September 13 primary takes place, be the nation’s premier fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. Should she prevail, along with lieutenant governor candidate Jumaane Williams (who, like Nixon, is endorsed by the insurgent Working Families Party), then a new kind of Democratic Party will be on the November ballot.

It will be a party that unequivocally rejects austerity, proposes an urgent timeline for addressing climate change, and unapologetically aligns itself with organized labor and civil rights groups in the fight for justice and equality. Put a pair of activist leaders with a history of linking movements to politics in charge of New York, the country’s financial and media center, and the potential for a transformational politics emerges immediately. Instead of waiting for gridlock to break in Washington, D.C., the change will begin in Albany.

Riding a ‘Blue Wave’ into control of statehouses across the country, making red states blue, blue states bluer, and implementing a progressive agenda is not a pipedream; it’s the exact inverse of what happened in 2010. 

Similar battles will be playing out in state capitals across the land. In St. Paul, Denver, and Sacramento, a new generation of activist progressives could take over from more cautious Democrats. In Springfield, Lansing, Des Moines, Augusta, Atlanta, and Phoenix, left-leaning Democrats could take over from rightwing Republicans this year.

The vast majority of governorships—thirty-six out of fifty—are up for grabs in 2018, as are the overwhelming majority of down-ballot state constitutional offices (including increasingly important attorney general and secretary of state posts) and state legislative seats. If the “Blue Wave” that even some conservatives now predict does indeed hit this year, the politics of Republican hegemony and Democratic compromise could be swept away at the same time.

This could make it possible, by the spring of 2019, for major progress on a number of state-based campaigns. A $15 minimum wage. Massive extensions of Medicaid (and perhaps even single-payer plans like those favored by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and other Democratic gubernatorial contenders). Fully funded public schools and tuition-free college. Legalization of marijuana and criminal justice reform. Fair elections and voting rights and an end to gerrymandering.

The change could be so dramatic that the national media might finally recognize that there is more going on in the United States than Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

This is what Democrats, if they are smart (and let’s admit they aren’t always), should be aiming for. It’s the clearest way to recapture lost ground—besides losing control of Congress and the majority of governorships, Democrats lost 968 state legislative seats during Obama’s two terms—and it’s a goal they might reasonably achieve.

Riding a “Blue Wave” into control of statehouses across the country, making red states blue, blue states bluer, and implementing a progressive agenda is not a pipedream; it’s the exact inverse of what happened in 2010, when conservative Republicans rode a wave election to historic gains across the nation. That conservative victory created gridlock in Washington, D.C., yet it allowed Republicans to unleash a new wave of partisan gerrymandering and other rightwing legislation in the states.

The Republicans picked up six governorships from the Democrats in 2010, but that was only the start of the story. In a number of red states, relatively moderate Republican governors were succeeded by fire-breathing conservatives. With a massive assist from the sophisticated political operations developed by the billionaire Koch brothers and their network of major donors, doctrinaire ideologues swept down-ballot races for attorney general, secretary of state, and state legislative seats.

Suddenly, Republicans were in their strongest position in the states in decades and they didn’t let this opportunity go to waste. Freshly elected governors, including Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Sam Brownback in Kansas, immediately began to dismantle not just public education and public services, but the infrastructure of democracy. They employed computer-assisted gerrymandering schemes, passed draconian voter ID laws, and restricted early voting and same-day registration. They pushed through preemption laws that tied the hands of local officials. They launched debilitating assaults on the rights of public employees to organize unions. They adopted “right-to-work” laws that undermined the ability of organized labor to counter corporate power.

There is now an entire literature devoted to the transformation of the states in the 2010s—a change that saw Republicans signing suddenly ubiquitous “model legislation” generated by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.

As Wisconsin’s Walker put it, “We didn’t just do stuff on the margins. We did fundamental, transformational things that will really make a difference.” How big a difference?

It’s entirely fair to suggest that the attacks on unions and on voting rights in Wisconsin and Michigan played a pivotal role in tipping those states—which had not supported a Republican presidential nominee since the 1980s—to Donald Trump in 2016. And it’s equally fair to suggest that the governing style of Trump and his Republican allies in Congress borrowed several pages from the take-no-prisoners, make-no-apologies approach of such Republican governors as Walker, Michigan’s Snyder, and Maine’s Paul LePage. These measures also gave aid and comfort to lower-level officials elected in 2010, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the anti-immigrant voter-fraud fabulist who would go on to serve as vice chair of Trump’s ill-fated Commission on Election Integrity.

This is why getting serious about the states matters so much for progressives who care less about petty partisanship than they do about big-picture agenda setting and policy making. 

That today’s Republican Party is crueler and more unusual than any previous incarnation of the former “Party of Lincoln” is not merely a reflection of Donald Trump. It is a reflection of the influence of Walker, Snyder, Kobach, and other Republican state officials elected since 2010.

A year after the 2016 election, “Never Trump” conservative columnist Max Boot observed, “What most troubles me about Trump’s presidency is the extent to which he is dividing Americans by race and ethnicity in service to his own political ambitions.” Fair enough; it is certainly true, as Boot suggests, that “Trump took a divided nation and instead of trying to heal those divisions, he has exacerbated them.” But Trump did not invent this politics. It was Wisconsin’s Walker who famously explained his governing vision to a billionaire supporter shortly after his election: “You use divide and conquer . . . . That opens the door once we do that.”

Many of the Republican-wave governors of 2010 are being term-limited out of their jobs, like Michigan’s Snyder and Ohio’s John Kasich, or have been bumped up to positions on the Trump team, like South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Iowa’s Terry Branstad.

But Walker is running for reelection this year, and is certain to face a tough fight. There are more than a dozen contenders in the August 14 Democratic primary, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (one of the first urban leaders to endorse Bernie Sanders for President), Firefighters union leader Mahlon Mitchell, and Blue Jean Nation activist Mike McCabe (profiled by The Progressive in 2015).

In April, after a progressive beat a conservative to take an open state supreme court seat for the first time in almost a quarter century, Walker tweeted: “Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI.”

That wave could crest in states far beyond Wisconsin, where the evidence already suggests that Democratic prospects are rising.

Democrats have scored sporadic wins in special elections for federal posts since Trump took office. They fell short in high-profile U.S. House races, like Jon Ossoff’s ill-fated bid to win former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s Georgia seat, as well as contests in Montana, Kansas, and South Carolina to fill the seats of Trump picks Ryan Zinke, Mike Pompeo, and Mick Mulvaney. And they scored narrow wins with Senate candidate Doug Jones in Alabama and Pennsylvania House candidate Conor Lamb.

But the opposition party has done much better in special elections for state legislative seats. In late April, after a series of special-election wins in New York State, national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee executive director Jessica Post announced, “Democrats have now flipped forty legislative seats from red to blue since 2016, and you know what, we’re not at all sick of winning yet.” She went on to talk about “rebuilding the Democratic Party from the ground up” in a way that “will set Democrats up for success in the decade following 2020 redistricting.”

Redistricting is important, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected this summer could create a much fairer process. But even under the existing maps, the Democrats have a good chance to make major gains in many states. “We’re only sixteen seats away from flipping eight chambers,” notes Post. And if a Blue Wave actually hits in 2018—when eighty-seven of the nation’s ninety-nine state legislative chambers (with 6,068 seats) are up for grabs—it could flip a lot more.

This is why getting serious about the states matters so much for progressives who care less about petty partisanship than they do about big-picture agenda setting and policy making.

The most dim-witted strategy that any party can embrace is that of trying to chart a narrow course to victory. That’s what Democrats did in 2016, when the party placed too much emphasis on winning the presidential election by securing a predictable pattern of blue states and blue-leaning “swing” states. When Trump picked off a group of Midwestern and Great Lakes states (Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, it was all over.

That wasn’t the first time cautious Democrats eluded victories that could have been secured had the party gone big. And the party could make the same mistake in 2018, by putting too much emphasis on federal races and too little on the states.

Expanding the focus to the states requires Democratic leaders to stop trying to control the leftward evolution of the party by promoting drab, centrist candidates who look and act too much like the Republicans they are trying to upset. The great lesson from the party’s breakthrough wins in 2017’s off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey was that the best strategy is to say yes to a more diverse field of candidates—women and people of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community, progressives and democratic socialists.

The great lesson from the party’s wins in Virginia and New Jersey was that the best strategy is to say yes to a more diverse field of candidates. 

Already, there are some hopeful signs. In Arizona, Arizona State University professor David Garcia, who is mounting a gubernatorial bid on a platform that promises to make college tuition free for all Arizona students, has emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and has actually polled ahead of Republican Governor Doug Ducey, a Koch acolyte, in several surveys.

If Garcia were to break through, he could well bring with him a Democratic slate that includes attorney general candidate January Contreras, who promises to join other states in challenging Trump Administration agendas on such issues as immigration. A former policy adviser to Janet Napolitano, the state’s most recent Democratic governor, Contreras promises to work with other activist Democratic attorneys general to defend the promise of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“With the liberty of 28,000 of our state’s inspiring young people at risk,” Contreras has said, “this is a legal fight that Arizona should be a part of.”

Attorneys general across the nation have filed lawsuits to prevent the federal government from cracking down on sanctuary cities and asking a Census question on immigration status. And they are suing the Federal Communications Commission for doing away with net neutrality and the Environmental Protection Agency for not controlling methane emissions and for rolling back achievable fuel efficiency standards.

Candidates running in states once written off by the Democrats are mounting serious campaigns in 2018. Much attention has been paid to Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House, who is seeking “to build a brand-new coalition we haven’t really seen in a Southern state”—a coalition of energized African American voters and white liberals that could make her the first African American woman governor in the nation’s history.

There are also historic campaigns being run by Native American women. Idaho state Representative Paulette Jordan, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, is running for governor of her state, and Minnesota state Representative Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor this year.

Flanagan is the founder and director of the Native American Leadership Program with Wellstone Action, a group founded to carry on the work of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. In 2016, she became the first Native American woman to address a Democratic National Convention from the podium. This year, she says, “We’ll have an opportunity for people of color, indigenous folks, those from marginalized communities, to have a seat at the table.”

Across the country, first-time candidates with tremendous life experience are mounting state-based campaigns that push the boundaries of politics and hold out the potential for much bolder and more immediate change than can be expected from Washington, D.C. Many of them are wrestling for control of Democratic ballot lines, and ultimately for a chance to define the party as a more progressive and activist political force. Not all will win. But those who prevail have a chance to do more than merely shift the electoral balance. They can initiate fundamental change.

Ben Jealous, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has been one of the nation’s most prominent campaigners for abolishing the death penalty, the expansion of voting rights, and an end to mass incarceration. He announced his candidacy for governor of Maryland this year with a declaration: “It is time for us to dream again. It is time for us to get back to making big dreams real again.”

It’s going to take some time before that’s an option in Washington, D.C. But Democrats could be dreaming big dreams and doing big deeds in state capitals across the country by next January.

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