This is another reminder of a topic we’ve discussed before: The urgent need for Democrats to focus more energy and resources on making electoral and policy gains at the state level.
As it turns out, there are now some signs that Dems are trying to do this: Various groups and party officials are planning new efforts along these lines.
The picture Wilson’s piece paints is bleak for Democrats. In addition to enjoying total control of government in half the states, Republicans also control 31 governorships and two thirds of partisan legislative chambers. Wilson reports that all over the country, Republicans are planning new rounds of fiscally conservative tax policies; “right to work” laws that would further weaken labor unions; and fresh initiatives targeting abortion rights and environmental regulations, among other things. What can Democrats do about this, in the near and long term?
Some Dems have formed a group called the State Innovation Exchange, a coalition of lawmakers and operatives that is meant to go toe-to-toe with right wing state-focused groups such as the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.
Nick Rathod, the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, tells me his group is examining new types of legislative templates that lawmakers can employ on the state level to move progressive ideas forward — just as ALEC does for conservative policies.
Rathod says his group is formulating a police reform bill that would create some form of state-level independent oversight agency, in hopes of capitalizing on the organizing energy unleashed by recent police killings. The group is also developing voting reform proposals that would expand voting access and flexibility, and proposals that would boost paid sick days, among other things. The group will encourage local Democrats to introduce such proposals in various states, where appropriate, in hopes of generating discussion and attention to them even in places where Republicans have control.
As difficult as it might seem to get anything done this way, Rathod points out that even in the last election — which was awful for Democrats — multiple states passed minimum wage hikes, showing that progressive policies can be moved forward even on hostile political turf. This is a big deal: In part due to those and other previous victories, millions of Americans are getting a raise this year, even in territory where Dems sustained major losses.
All this is being eyed as a long game, and part of the mission here is to reorient the Democratic donor class. “Ultimately we want to get to a $10-12 million budget over the course of the next few years,” Rathod tells me. “Donors understand that if we want to get something done in this country, we have to go to the states, because it’s not happening in D.C. Historically, donors have focused on federal elections and moving policy at the federal level. There’s still a strong need to get people more excited about the possibilities at the state level.”
Meanwhile, the influential Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy liberal donors, is currently working on a plan to channel money from the party’s top money people into elections in states. Key to this plan will be figuring out how to make relatively un-sexy state-level contests and issues attractive to money folks who think all the action is in high profile federal races.
“One of the things the Democracy Alliance is going to try to do is nationalize state issues for donors,” Gara LaMarche, the group’s president, tells me. “We have to try to look at state legislative races and have a plan over the next three or four cycles to get back to where we need to be.”
And Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who has been tapped to serve on a Democratic National Committee panel that will conduct an autopsy into what went wrong in 2014, tells me he will urge the group to focus some energy on figuring out how to improve the party’s plight on the state level.
“A big part of the future for the Democratic Party is on the state level, and we’ve got to get more active there,” Beshear says. He is a walking example of the need to do just that: After all, with the help of some Dem state legislators in Kentucky, he has presided over one of the most successful implementations of Obamacare anywhere, bringing about a sharp drop in the rate of uninsured in a red state that is one of the most unhealthy regions in the country.
There are a number of reasons for the urgency of developing a long term plan right now, in addition to the legislative implications of big GOP state-level gains in 2014. If the Supreme Court guts Obamacare subsidies in three dozen states on the federal exchange, the law’s prognosis in those states could depend on the response from state legislators, something that could unfold over years. Implementation of Obama’s proposed new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants will also depend partly on the response from states, and right wing groups are organizing in states against those regulations. This battle, too, will unfold over years, with enormous long-term ramifications.
Meanwhile, a new round of redistricting is coming in 2020, at a time when the House of Representatives is looking increasingly out of reach for Democrats for many years to come. And ultimately, Democrats need to develop a long term plan now to have any hope of catching up to similar efforts to focus on down-ballot races by conservative groups such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which also were long in formation.
“What the right has done really well in the last couple of cycles is focus way, way down on the ballot,” LaMarche tells me. “We have to raise our game substantially.”