How democrats can retake state governments in the long-game.
In 1980, even in the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan as the most influential Republican in modern history, Democrats controlled 29 state legislatures, compared to the 15 that were held by Republicans. Four decades later, in the 2020 election that was expected to see a “blue wave,” that number had almost entirely reversed. Now, Republicans control 30 state legislatures, while Democrats control just 18.
Now, even as Democrats occupy the majority in the federal congress and the White House, Republicans on state levels are not only undermining federal political plays, but they are creating actively harmful legislation for citizens in their states.
In Georgia, the state legislature passed a series of despicable voting laws that will make it more difficult for black and brown voters in the state to ever make it to the polls.
In Arkansas, in spite of a veto from a Republican governor, the state legislature passed offensive legislation that would make it illegal for physicians to provide gender-affirming healthcare to people under the age of 18.
In Tennessee, the state legislature made it legal for practically anyone over the age of 21 to carry a firearm — concealed or in the open — without a permit.
It’s not surprising these attacks are being carried out on the state level, mostly because that’s the highest level that the Republican party has any power at during this two-year cycle. Regardless, it’s justifiably terrifying to see happening around the country, and many are rightly wondering the best way to handle re-earning the local votes across the country.
The return of the southern Democrat
The phrase “southern Democrat” seems almost anachronistic to my generation, something that sounds pretty but might never happen again. Yet it did happen, and it happened for a long time. Up until Reagan, the south was largely Democratic on the state level, and in many places it wasn’t uncommon to see a federal figure standing on the left.
Though it certainly has seemed like a forgone conclusion that the south would never hold a Democrat again, Stacey Abrams proved us wrong. Georgian politics aren’t magically solved, but the election of John Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock proved that Georgia has the capacity within it to elect Democrats — even in statewide races that include massive swaths of rural, traditionally conservative voters.
What happened in Georgia is not only a lesson in how to get elected in the south, it’s a lesson in hope. It proved to the south that if Georgia can do it, so can everyone else.
We have to stop worrying about federal politics in state races
Recently there was a special election in my home state of Oklahoma, for the state senate seat that was vacated due to the senator being elected to federal congress. The Democratic candidate was a great one. She was a normal Oklahoman, she had lived in Oklahoma all her life and had tons of connections and people who would stick up for her. I have friends who jubilantly told me that they knew her from the church they used to go to, or because they met her at a university mixer, and that she was a lovely person.
But the candidate got bogged down in national politics. In the leadup to the election, she was talking about trans rights issues, and in the absence of any substantive state legislation running to the right on LGBT issues, it didn’t feel relevant. Her opponent didn’t do much better — he was talking about oil pipelines and border security in the same way Republicans were nationally, but having a large population of oil workers and old people, that message just resonated better, and he ended up winning.
Instead of following the lead of Democrats on the federal level, we need to keep Democrats on the state level focused on state issues. State issues are sometimes potholes in roads or cats in trees, but they can also be the way state police behave or sorely-needed support for unions with thousands of members. They’re minimum wage problems, and they’re the way abuse gets reported.
Instead of tying Democratic success on the state level in more conservative places to the success of Democratic issues nationally, we should be tying it to local issues that we can win on a regular basis.
We have to actually talk to voters
A completely underrated value in modern politics is genuinely engaging in an honest conversation with ones constituency. I represent the minority of people who actually emails their representatives. I regularly send emails to my state rep, my federal rep, and my two senators, and the only thing stopping me from sending emails to my state senator is the fact that it is that seat that just had the special election (and believe me, my new state senator WILL be hearing from me frequently going forwards).
I disagree with every single one of the people who represent me. Fundamentally, we differ on almost every major or minor policy detail that exists within the realm of their responsibility. And of the four people I regularly send emails to, I get regular responses from only one of them.
My state rep isn’t who I voted for, and she isn’t who I’d best like in that seat. But her responses to my mail have been honest, sometimes brutally so, and that communication is so vastly refreshing for someone who absorbs themselves in this shitshow like I do. That interaction, just a simple but honest reply to my email, is so meaningful that it almost makes me forget the whole system is fundamentally flawed.
This is what Democrats need to do. People need to feel like their concerns have been heard by Democrats, and that we don’t just stand for the coastal elites. White men should understand that when we raise the floor, we don’t lower the ceiling, and people in the suburbs should understand that we, just as much as anyone else, are trying to protect their way of life.
The Oklahoma Teacher Strikes
This strategy of listening works. In talking with friends and family who tend to lean conservative, their concerns seldom have to do with the debates in Washington. The people I’ve talked to aren’t particularly worried about healthcare, nor are they stressed out about immigration of any kind.
Instead, the thing that bothered them the most about the government was that it was full of career politicians who had no experience in the real world. It was this attitude that got Donald Trump elected in 2016 on the idea that he would “drain the swamp,” but it also indicated a different path to success for normal people in politics.
In 2018, Oklahoma saw a massive teacher strike due to abhorrently low teacher wages for public education workers. For two weeks schools were out of session so teachers, administrators, and even a handful of superintendents, could go march on the capitol and demand higher pay. For a high-schooler, it was a beautiful show of democracy at work.
And that fall, in the 2018 election, Oklahoma saw 16 educators elected to the state legislature. They weren’t all Democrats (in fact, most of them weren’t), but it proved the theory worked: Democrats who listen, who engage, and who represent regular people, can win.
We must be patient
Don’t misunderstand me, we can never stop fighting like everything depends on it (because it does), but big change takes time. It took forty years for Republicans to mostly flip the tables on Democrats in state legislatures, and it took an entire decade for Fair Fight Georgia to ensure that voters who should have a voice actually do.
Getting it right, so that we build a foundation of regular voters, strong fundraising lists, and relevant party platforms, is far more important than a random or fragile majority composed of splitting a state in half across party lines. The latter simply isn’t worth it.
Patience will also pay off in the form of young generations getting involved. We’re looking into the face of one of the most politically active generations of all time, we just need to give them the chance to show up. We need to bring them into the fight where they are, changing the very ground they stand on. They will do it, it just takes some patience.
This isn’t an easy problem, and there isn’t a single silver bullet. It will take years, perhaps a decade or more, to undo the damage done by the opposition. But it is absolutely worth it, because what is happening by Republican state legislatures is disgusting, and it has to stop now.