Everyone knows Democrats are in the minority at nearly all levels of government. Nobody in the party seems to know for sure quite how to rebuild. But one strategy has been gaining steam: forget the top-down fixation, say state party advocates. It's time to embrace the reverse.
Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, is heavily lobbying Democratic leaders to pick a chair of the Democratic National Committee who is deeply committed to winning statehouse elections.
Post recently spoke by phone with The Fix to explain why some Democrats say the path to the majority runs through the nation's statehouses. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: This seems like an obvious thing to say, but I guess you feel like you need to say it: The incoming DNC chair should want Democratic state legislative majorities.
POST: There are many people who have this D.C.-centric view that if you win the presidency, all of it should just trickle down and that's how we'll rebuild.
And we feel like they need to take the opposite approach. State legislatures determine voting rights, congressional districts, things like collective bargaining, the schools people go to — the everyday things in people's lives. And I think we're finally starting to realize that you can't win a Michigan without thinking about grass roots organizing and getting to these towns and these cities. The right way to do that is with state legislatures.
You recently spoke about this at a Democratic National Committee gathering. Why did it take until now — when you don't have a Democratic president nor a Democratic-controlled Congress — for the Democratic Party to have this conversation?
In 2010 [midterms], maybe our national donors didn't think we had the same level of problems nationally, in part because of the success of the Obama presidency and the success of Democrats nationally. We had 60 votes in the Senate coming off the 2008 cycle, so it wasn't a time for party introspection.
During Obama's presidency, Democrats lost more than 20 state legislative chambers. In 2017, Republicans have total control of government in at least 25 states. What did they do right?
In 2010, Republicans thought they didn't have a path to the presidency, so I think they did a great job of going to their national donors and making the case to focus on state legislatures. They went to them with a really good value proposition: You invest $30 million, we'll save $150 million in federal House dollars [by redistricting] over the next decade.
We're trying to make a similar value proposition to our donors. I think we're learning the lessons that Republicans learned in 2010.
Let's talk about redistricting, which is a big part of your argument to get the Democratic Party to focus on state legislatures.
We certainly have to win back state legislatures if we ever want to win back Congress. There are 37 states where the state legislature draws the congressional map, and in many of the states that Republicans won in 2010, you can see that they have tilted the maps in a way that favors them.
So looking at the 2018 map, states like Colorado and New York will be top of mind, as well as states like North Carolina and Virginia [that could or will have state elections in 2017.]
And then traditional Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio are all key states we'll take a look at.
And now you have help from the highest levels of the Democratic Party, with a redistricting effort headed by former attorney general Eric Holder and backed by President Obama himself.
We're delighted by the development of this. I'm a board member. I think this is an outgrowth of some of the working groups we've been having. President Obama did a number of things to be committed to us, including signing fundraising emails and direct mail solicitations to donors for us. We're super excited that commitment will go beyond the White House. I think this will generate additional resources and a strategic alignment for our part that simply didn't exist in 2010.
Winning back these legislatures could take some time — in Ohio, for example, Republicans control 14 out of 16 of Senate seats and have a 2-to-1 advantage in the House. Could that be a deterrent to donors and the party?
In some cases, it will be a multi-cycle strategy to get back these legislatures. But a large number of seats flip more often than you might expect. It's not uncommon to pick up double-digit state house seats in a Michigan or a Pennsylvania. And that's a helpful argument to make to donors who may just see the numbers and think it's too tough.
[Editor's note: State legislative Democrats also point out that the last time midterm elections were held under a Republican president, Democrats picked up 10 state legislative chambers.]
Has the Democratic pipeline suffered from losing so many chambers?
I think there are a lot of very good state legislative leaders that are ready to run for higher office.
We have Crisanta Duran, the first Latina speaker of the house in Colorado history. Aaron Ford, who is majority leader of the Nevada State Senate, put himself through school, has a PhD and a law degree. Speaker Tina Kotek in Oregon — I could tell you 15 people off the top of my head who I think could run for higher office.
But we have lost some leaders that could have had long careers in states like Ohio, for example, by losing them from the legislature.
Are there any candidates for DNC chair you're learning toward supporting?
We at DLCC won't endorse a specific candidate, but our delegates to the DNC may. As long as whoever becomes chair focuses on what he or she is supposed to be focusing on, we're going to be in good shape.