Midterms are coming. Many Democratic voters and pundits are focused on whether the party can win enough seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Farther down the funnel, folks are paying attention to key governor’s races. All of these races deserve the excitement and energy that’s mounting for them.
But it is also absolutely imperative to focus on state legislative races—this year and, frankly, every year. These critical but often overlooked venues of power have been a secret weapon of Republicans for decades. Democrats were rather unbelievably blindsided by Republicans’ REDMAP strategy to take over state legislatures in 2010, which has had profound implications for the rest of the entire decade. Not getting hosed again will require paying attention to state legislative races immediately.
Here are several reasons to care about state legislative races.
- State Laws Have a Huge Effect on Daily Life. Although it is difficult to pass policy at a national level, state legislatures get things done. Access to health care, education, transportation, the environment, and voting rights are but a few policy areas principally determined by state legislatures. These policies have profound influence on our daily lives, sometimes even more so than federal policy. With the likely new composition of the Supreme Court, more areas of social, civic, and economic life will fall within the sphere of the states to control.
- State Laws Get Around. The laws created in one jurisdiction often spread to others—this is called policy diffusion. One common type of policy diffusion is state-to-state, which means the policy enacted by one state legislature can affect decision making across other states. The right wing and its corporate-backed shadow groups have long used this approach with tremendous success. Perhaps the most aggressive right-wing organization using this strategy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Some examples include ALEC-authored copycat legislation gutting minimum wage increases—reducing overtime compensation and repealing minimum wages above $7.25—which has been introduced in 31 state legislatures and passed in 11. Some examples include ALEC-authored copycat legislation gutting minimum wage increases — reducing overtime compensation and repealing minimum wages above $7.25 — which has been introduced in 31 state legislatures and passed in 11. ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” drafted language for a bill that became the controversial SB 1070 anti-immigration law in Arizona. It was signed into law there; similar bills were introduced into the legislatures of nearly two dozen other states. And another conservative group, Americans United for Life (AUL), has proffered numerous pieces of model legislation (also known as targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP laws) restricting access to reproductive health services. As of 2014, AUL claimed to have been responsible for 74 of the more than 200 anti-abortion laws passed by state legislatures since 2010. On the flip side, there are also examples of state legislatures sharing progressive or ‘public good’ state policies in areas like energy and climate policy. Policy diffusion is a strategy that can be harnessed for the public good or for the benefit of a few—but either way, it often happens through state legislatures.
- State Laws Become National Laws. State policies also often serve as test cases, and later can become national policies once they prove useful. For instance, “Romneycare” was implemented in Massachusetts in 2006; after a few years of general success, the approach was used in part to create a national model in the Affordable Care Act. More recently, a federal “right-to-try” law creating a framework for patients to access experimental new drugs passed into law, after a majority of states established their own right-to-try laws. Social Security in the 1930s was modeled in part on state policy; and in the 1980s, state policy related to public disclosure of toxic emissions led to federal policy in this area.
- State Leaders Become National Leaders. The officials we elect to state office often go on to run for national office. Nearly half of all presidents, including Barack Obama, started their political careers as state legislators. In our current Congress, 44 senators and 220 representatives formerly served as state legislators. State legislatures are a training ground for national leaders. In order to build a pipeline of high-quality progressive folks with the experience and credentials to become national candidates, voters must take these seats back, nurture these leaders, and grow the bench.
- Most States Control Redistricting.State legislatures are primarily in charge of redistricting in 37 states. In these states, the political party in power gets to redraw both state and congressional voting district lines, once per decade. If the lines are manipulated strategically—a process called gerrymandering—this can result in one party controlling a disproportionate number of seats. Democrats lost 20 state legislative chambers in a single night in 2010. Republicans were then able to draw the maps in many states, which led to reapportionment of congressional districts in a way that favored Republicans and contributed substantially to increased partisanship in Congress. Let me repeat: A big reason why the House is so full of partisan rancor in 2018 is because of gerrymandering at the state level by Republicans after the 2010 elections. This year, there are seats that carry four-year terms up for election in dozens of state legislative chambers. That, combined with incumbent advantage, means that in hundreds of state races across the country, whoever is elected this year will be in office to draw the next maps lasting until 2030. This year offers many last chances to change the composition of state chambers ahead of the next Census and redistricting.
It’s heartening to see state legislatures finally get a bit of due attention. But Democrats need to do a lot more in terms of fundraising and field support to retake these chambers. It’s not too late, but it will require tearing our gaze away from federal races and looking down ballot. These are relatively inexpensive races, where a dollar donation and an hour of canvassing can make a tremendous difference. It also requires Democratic candidates and leaders to offer policies that work to improve the lives of their constituents—including in the areas of health care, education, infrastructure, and voting rights. Through policy diffusion, these state policies may one day spread and improve lives across the nation.
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The return on investment for volunteer time is sky high at this level. Down-ballot races are often decided by hundreds, or even just dozens, of votes. Sometimes, even just one. There are 39 days until the election. Today is the day to get involved in state legislative races.