Where the Political Action Is: The States, Not Washington

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By Scott Arceneaux

The congressional map is shrinking. Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, recently declared that there are fewer competitive seats in the 2014 race to control Congress than he has ever recorded.


The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, has become a World War I battleground where combatants fight over a few yards of ground, declare victory and then retrench.

The 112th Congress was the most unproductive on record, and this Congress has passed even fewer bills — just 22 so far. Gridlock is the new normal in Washington.

So where is the action? It is in the states.

Specifically, in America’s state legislatures and governors’ mansions, where the battles for the ideological future of our country are being fought. In a few cases, progressives have carried the day, as New York and Maryland did in the fight for marriage equality. But more often than not, in state after state, we see radical conservative, tea party-fueled agendas shaping the laws that most affect American citizens.

While congressional races attract tons of attention, cable news and money, it is all too often that race for state house or state Senate that makes the difference. The conservative movement gets it, and 2010 was the result.

The harvest is plain to see. Republicans gained 690 legislative seats in 2010. There is now a full frontal assault on women’s health in Texas and North Carolina. Anti-union legislation in once union-friendly states like Michigan and Ohio. Voter-suppression laws in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. The list is long, and it affects millions and millions of Americans.

The question now is: What we do about it? And this is where progressives are missing the boat. Democrats typically have a “grass is always greener on the other side” mentality. And for the past 12 years, we have lurched from one “new thing” to the next, be it “ACT,” “527s,” the new “IE,” and now “Super PACs.”

Granted, all of these things have their utility, particularly in big races. But few such groups have any interest or inclination to get involved in state and local races. That’s incredibly shortsighted.

These unsexy “down-ballot” races are the contests that make a difference in how a congressional redistricting map gets drawn. They could tip the balance of the choice debate in a state legislature. But so far, the big money on the left doesn’t seem to get this. Last year, $7 billion was spent on the national contests, while an average of just $50 million was spent on each state.

But there is good news for progressives and Democrats. There is a ready-made infrastructure in every state that exits for the sole purpose of electing Democrats, particularly Democratic governors and legislators: Democratic state parties.

For too long, however, the progressive community has ignored, or worse starved, state parties. We’ve heard the reasons, and many of them have merit: State parties have too much turnover, lack consistency of leadership, and levels of competency vary greatly. Fair enough.

It’s time to get over it, since almost all these complaints lead right back to funding. We are cutting off our noses to spite our faces, and the only winners are Republicans.

In Florida, in 2012, we worked hard to break the Republican supermajority in both of our chambers. While these were modest gains to the outside world, two seats in the Senate and five in the House, they have had a major impact in Tallahassee. We have stopped harmful “parent-trigger” bills, which would let for-profit corporations take over public schools, by just one vote, and halted anti-union legislation and privatization efforts by equally slim margins. These are real-world results that matter beyond Florida’s borders, as these same issues are being pushed in state after state, from California to Wisconsin.

But here is where progressives miss the boat: The answer for progressives is not the next Super PAC, but viable, sustainable state parties armed with the tools for success, working to elect Democratic governors and legislators every day. Progressive donors and institutions are, all too often, failing to invest in state parties right now, helping us retake statehouses, expand the voter rolls and build the Democratic bench for the next big race that earns national attention.

Democratic state parties are on the front lines of these house-to-house fights for control of state legislatures. But we desperately need investments in resources that will help us, in some cases, simply restore sanity to a legislative body or, hopefully, flip a chamber. We can do this: Armed with the right tools, from the simplest — professional staff — to the most complex — Big Data — state parties are uniquely positioned to make a difference.

Democrats and progressives ignore state parties only at their peril. Washington is not going to fix what is happening today in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, or Texas. It is not going to stop Gov. Scott Walker from playing rough with unions or Gov. Nikki Haley from signing a voter suppression bill into law. But state parties can.

And then there are the maps. Republican control of statehouses and governors’ mansions during the 2010 redistricting cycle set progressives and Democrats back years — if not a decade — in some states. The 2020 redistricting cycle will be here before we know it, and it will take years to build the infrastructure to take those seats back. Let’s start now.

Scott Arceneaux is executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, a position he has held since 2009. Arceneaux has run and worked on Democratic campaigns across the country and was executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party from 2001 to 2004.

Originally published in Politico

© 2013 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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