The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Democrats missing the most important fight of 2020?

Stacey Abrams in Atlanta on April 23. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Attention left-leaning billionaires: Do you want to put money into the 2020 campaign in a way that will really make a difference? Here’s some news to think about:

Stacey Abrams is taking her voting rights crusade national, with a program to provide technical and financial assistance to help Democrats in key states strengthen their voter protection operations ahead of next year’s general election.
The initiative, called Fair Fight 2020, takes its name from the organization that the Georgia Democrat founded last year after narrowly losing her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor. Abrams is set to announce the program Tuesday during a speech at the convention of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Las Vegas.

It isn’t only billionaires who should think about this and other kinds of efforts that don’t involve presidential candidates. I would never discourage anyone from contributing to their favored candidate — go right ahead. But the truth is that those candidates will not be hurting for money. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for instance, has already raised nearly $50 million. Which brings me to the part of this story I found shocking:

The effort, expected to cost between $4 million and $5 million, will target 20 states, most of them battlegrounds in the Midwest and Southeast, and three states with gubernatorial elections this year: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Four to five million dollars. Meanwhile, Tom Steyer has promised to spend $100 million running for president, spent $7 million on TV and digital ads in his first month as a candidate. It’s half of what John Delaney — who, spoiler alert, is not going to be president, either — has already spent on his campaign.

Every Democrat agrees that countering voter suppression and enabling turnout are absolutely critical, and there’s no one better to do these things than Abrams, who has worked on this issue in Georgia for years. Liberal donors ought to be falling all over themselves to give her their money. The budget for this project should be $50 million, not $5 million. Or more.

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If Democrats have any doubts about how important it is to stop voter suppression and remove impediments to the polls, they only have to look at what their opponents are doing: Republicans are waging an all-out war on voting rights, using every technique they can devise to make it more difficult for Americans, particularly Americans of color, to register and vote. They know that the higher turnout is, the worse it is for Republicans. Yet for years, most Democrats have acted as though safeguarding voting rights was just one of many things they cared about, and not something that demanded urgent attention and mobilization.

It’s not just Abrams’s effort; Democrats need to think holistically about the challenges they face, which also means investing heavily in state legislative races. This is particularly critical in 2020, because the state legislatures that are elected next year will be the ones overseeing redistricting after the census is complete. Lose control of that process, and you find it harder to win and hold a House majority, which means it’s harder to get things done even if you win the White House. That’s what happened in 2010, when some visionary Republicans realized that for a relatively small investment (it ended up being about $30 million) targeted at key state legislative races they could flip multiple state legislatures, then use that control to gerrymander both state and congressional districts to lock in their power. The project, called Redmap, was a stunning success.

Democrats were caught off guard back then. Ten years later, they can’t say they don’t know where the battle is.

Unfortunately, fighting voter suppression isn’t as exciting as presidential politics, and neither are state legislative races. The news is filled with what’s going on in the presidential campaign, it’s driven by personality (which we all find inherently interesting), and it’s what everyone’s talking about. So it can be hard to tear your eyes away to think about something less glamorous.

But Democrats don’t want to wake up the morning after Election Day and say, “Gee, maybe we should have invested more time, effort and money into fighting voter suppression and helping down-ballot candidates. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a piecemeal effort with a bunch of underfunded groups trying to make do, while the presidential nominee scrambled to mobilize voters in the last few months of the campaign. Maybe it would have made the difference in some of those battleground states.” In other words, they don’t want to find themselves saying what they’ve said before, after losing.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Republicans everywhere are waging a desperate battle against democracy

Jennifer Rubin: Just how big a problem is voter suppression?

Paul Waldman: Republicans boldly explore new frontiers of voter suppression

The Post’s View: Republicans’ great enemy: Voters

Jennifer Rubin: Stacey Abrams gives a graduate school class on voter suppression