The next big target for liberals: State legislatures

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has announced a new initiative from his group Democracy for America — over the next two years, it will invest in flipping state legislatures and building (or rebuilding) a Democratic advantage in state races around the country. “A little money goes a long way in these state legislative races,” said Dean in a conference call. To that end, DFA will spend $750,000 on behalf of five candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates this year.

It’s hard to overstate how smart a way this is for liberal groups to invest their time and money. Virginia, in fact, is a great case study for why it’s key for Democrats to make gains on the state level. Democrats control both Senate seats in the state, and it was key to Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Despite this, Republicans control all three statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), the House of Delegates, and have the tie breaking vote in the state senate. The result? Republicans have been able to push a strong conservative agenda in the state.

Earlier this week, for example, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell introduced an amendment to the state’s health care reform implementation bill that would ban abortion coverage in the state insurance exchange. It would also prevent women from purchasing a separate rider to get abortion coverage, a stricter provision than other states with similar prohibitions. Given Republican strength in the state legislature, this is likely to pass, even if Virginians — as indicated by their votes for Democratic Senate and presidential candidates — aren’t hostile to Roe v. Wade. But these voters aren’t the ones voting in state elections (like the one that elected McDonnell, for instance). Their older, whiter, and wealthier counterparts are the ones who turn out, giving them outsized influence on policy in the commonwealth.

This dynamic is true nationwide, and we saw it in the last round of midterm elections. In addition to losing control of the House in 2010, Democrats suffered huge losses on the state level. In Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and North Carolina — all blue states or swing states — Republicans won either full or partial control of state legislatures, wrestling majorities away from Democrats. Not only did this give them the power to set agendas and make policy — giving them leeway, for example, to break public sector unions, pass voter identification laws, and implement tough abortion restrictions — but it allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts and ensure a more durable Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Moreover, it’s given Republicans another place from which to stymie the Obama administration; in several blue or purple states, Obamacare implementation has been stalled by Republican governors and legislatures who oppose the law.

Winning control of governorships and state legislatures is key if Democrats want to build political strength, advance key goals and priorities, and secure their policy gains over the long term. Howard Dean’s new plan is a small — but important — step in the right direction. Hopefully, others will follow his lead.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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