Rob Stein, a former senior strategist for the Democratic National Committee, is the founder and board member emeritus of the progressive advocacy organization Democracy Alliance.
Resistance is the appropriate and necessary impulse of Democrats at this strange and raucous inception of the Trump administration. It is also woefully insufficient to address the monumental existential threats Democrats confront.
Resistance alone will not defeat the Republicans’ stranglehold on political power in 30 states, will not affect redistricting in 2020, will not defeat Republican congressional majorities and will not advance an affirmative progressive agenda.
That is because President Trump is not the cause of Democratic travails. Rather, he is the unfortunate consequence of Democrats’ failure to build the modern political machinery necessary to compete effectively with Republicans in key battleground states. Until that happens, Republican dominance will continue.
As Republicans have understood and acted on for years, it simply is not possible in these times to consistently win elections and advance policy without well-managed and well-financed state-based efforts, particularly in states with diverse populations distributed throughout rural, urban and suburban communities.
Sophisticated state-based electoral operations mobilize the resources and intelligently align the functions of state political parties, independent expenditure organizations and movement groups. They recruit electable candidates for local, state and federal offices. They invest in creative new ways to reach specific voter groups, build integrated communications hubs and conduct effective opposition research, community organizing and voter mobilization.
Republicans and their allies — most notably the network of wealthy donors organized by the Koch brothers — have created formidable political operations that execute these functions with great skill and precision in more than 30 states. Democrats have permanent, well-managed and well-financed electoral capacity in less than a handful of states.
This dire political imbalance contributed to the Trump victory last year. He did not need his own “ground game” in 2016. He rode to power on the voter mobilization coattails of the Republican right’s multistate political juggernaut, which maximized Republican voter turnout in every key battleground state.
Even more ominous, this state machinery further solidified remarkable Republican dominance in such key states as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Georgia and Iowa. Republicans now have majorities in all state legislative chambers in more than 30 states and have elected 80 percent of the governors, 77 percent of senators and 73 percent of House members from 30 states.
This machinery was not built in one election cycle or for one candidate. It is not owned and operated by the Republican Party but exists outside that institution. It existed before Trump ascended to power and is getting stronger each year.
So while progressive resistance and confrontation are necessary in the days, months and even years ahead, they are not sufficient to build power, compete effectively and win consistently within battleground states. Beginning immediately, Democrats and our progressive allies must focus on constructing, in as many places as possible, effective state-based capacities dedicated to winning elections.
The exciting political reality of 2017 is that Democrats know precisely how to build such high-performing, state-based political alliances and capabilities. We know, because we are doing it in states such as Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and, more recently, North Carolina. Each of these would be bright-red Republican states today but for the work of talented Democratic political operatives and donors who have combined forces and committed to building long-term political infrastructure in their states.
These are state leaders who are not controlled by national political organizations, are not dependent primarily on national donors and are not wowed by national pollsters, consultants and “experts” who parachute in. They know their states. They trust their neighbors. They talk to voters from every demographic group and every region of the state. They know they cannot win consistently and retain political power in the state without including a range of political views and allegiances in their strategic calculations. They know how to fight and how to compromise. They form alliances among Democratic activists, strategists and donors. They efficiently pool their resources and share their information. They are committed to the planning and operating disciplines necessary to win elections.
What these pioneering state leaders have built can provide invaluable road maps for Democrats in every state. Now, Democrats must apply these lessons throughout the country. Otherwise, our protests, however insistent and heartfelt, will be in vain.