By Andrea Dew Steele
President and Founder, Emerge America
Recently, I sat down with a reporter friend of mine and he asked me if I was ecstatic about the election. “Why would I be ecstatic?” I asked him.
“Because the Republican party seems to be in full revolt. If Trump is the nominee, which he likely will be, his numbers are terrible. And if he isn’t, his people might very well stay home. This is sure to translate into gains for down-ballot candidates on the Democratic ticket.”
I’m not so sure about that, I told him. Republicans have stacked their bench and invested in down-ballot races for years now. They’ve understood controlling the political direction of this country doesn’t happen at the federal level. And they’ve been executing a scarily-effective 50-state strategy to elect candidates in the states at every level. Democrats haven’t.
We didn’t listen to Howard Dean when he was chair of the Democratic Party from 2005 to 2009 and wanted to implement a similar 50-state strategy. For some reason, the very smart people leading our party paid little to no attention to down-ballot races. The results have been nothing less than catastrophic.
Prior to the 2010 midterm, there were trifectas (single-party-control of both the governorship and both state chambers) in 24 states. The Democrats had 16, while the Republicans had only eight. Post-election, however, things looked very different. Democratic trifectas were reduced to 10 and Republicans managed to increase theirs to 21. After the 2014 midterm election, Republicans gained another two trifectas and increased their number of governor and legislature-controlled states to 23, while Democratic trifectas decreased again to seven.
Today, a national snapshot of our state governments looks like this: Republicans control 70 of America’s 99 state legislative chambers, both chambers in 30 states (plus Nebraska’s lone chamber) and 31 governor’s mansions. It’s a devastating shift in the balance of power that happened right under our noses. While Democrats were consumed by the high-profile fights going on in Washington, the Republicans slipped in through the back door and made themselves right at home in the states.
Since they took power, legislators in these Republican-controlled states have passed a steady stream of legislation furthering their radical conservative agendas. This has led to a barrage of coordinated attacks on fundamental rights, such as women’s access to reproductive care, and countless new barriers to participating in our democracy, like voter ID requirements and racial profiling laws. Not to mention assaults on LGBT rights, like the passing of stringent anti-transgender laws in North Carolina. What’s more, having control of so many state decision-making bodies meant that Republicans got to redraw many of the new district boundaries for congressional seats after the 2010 election leading to sweeping GOP victories in the House.
This election the Democrats will likely have a “once in a generation” opportunity with a widely unpopular (some might say loathsome) Republican presidential candidate, but once again we failed to adequately invest in down-ballot races. Now, it’s going to be tough, if not impossible, for us to capitalize on the situation, because most of the filing deadlines have passed. You can’t win if you don’t compete.
At Emerge America, the organization that I founded to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office, we have 270 women on the ballot at every level, and we could easily quadruple that with increased resources. We already know there are many races where Republican incumbents go unchallenged year-after-year. In fact, 33 percent of state legislative-district elections in 2012 were uncontested.
Until Democrats make a course correction and realize that we’ve got to start at the state and local level and nurture exceptional talent up through the ranks, we’re in for a bumpy ride. Not only will the states with conservative governments continue to pass laws that restrict our rights and benefit corporations at the expense of hardworking Americans, but Republicans will continue to have a much more robust roster of up-and-coming leaders than we do. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for senior Democratic leaders to find rising star candidates with the right experience to step into the shoes of our retiring governors, Senators and U.S. Representatives. It’s only going to get worse unless we change our strategy.
Building a strong national party has to start at the grassroots level with our city councils, school boards and mayors. We have to cultivate our “farm team” and push them up the ranks into state and federal offices. And if we do a better job of recruiting these candidates, we can take back the state legislatures and governorships and other important state-wide executive offices like attorney general and secretary of state. We’ll cultivate a strong Democratic party that will endure for generations and survive any attack the other side can throw at us. But we have to build our bench first.
So while I am ecstatic at the prospect of electing a Democratic president and hopefully retaking the Senate, I know that isn’t enough. It won’t stop the terrible conservative laws being passed virtually every day in our states that end up trickling up to the Supreme Court and becoming the law of the land.
Democrats already know our inclusive ideas and progressive positions are on the right side of history. Now, it’s up to us to prepare the people who will carry them into the future.