Elaine Thompson / AP

The Democratic comeback plan

Shower money and energy on the states to advance policy and nurture tomorrow’s big names

November 17, 2014 2:00AM ET

There’s no getting over a heartache until you plunge yourself into something (or someone) fresh and consuming. That’s what Democrats should do in the wake of their miserable midterm elections. Specifically, party activists and donors should direct their cash and attentions to state legislatures and state ballot initiatives. It’s the smart move both psychologically and politically.

Obviously Democrats can’t ignore the 2016 House, Senate, gubernatorial and presidential elections. But party movers and shakers must also understand the potential payoff of a forceful presence well below those levels. There’s a diminishing bench of prospects for the higher offices that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and a policy agenda that is making more progress through direct, state-specific appeals to voters than in Congress. Think of the possibilities: Minimum wage hikes today, Medicaid expansion tomorrow?

First, to recap the damage: Republicans took over 11 state legislative chambers that had been held by Democrats. They now control 23 states entirely — governor and both legislative chambers — versus seven for Democrats. They netted three new governors for a total of 31, versus 18 for Democrats. They gained more than 300 legislators and now hold the most state legislative seats since 1920.

Ballot initiatives were the one upbeat aspect of the midterms for Democrats, at least for those who are interested in progressive policy advances and not just party standing. Voters in four red states increased the minimum wage, and those in Washington state expanded gun background checks to include online and gun-show sales. Both ideas have gone nowhere in the Senate despite national polls that show 80 to 90 percent of registered voters support expanding background checks and seven in 10 support raising the minimum wage. Gun safety groups are eyeing Nevada, Oregon, Arizona and Maine for 2016. They quickly followed their success in Washington state by turning in signatures last week to put a similar measure on the 2016 Nevada ballot if the legislature and governor do not make it happen in 2015.

Abortion rights and paid sick leave also did well on ballots this year. Other progressive goals could be accomplished by giving voters a direct say through ballot initiatives, a process available in 24 states. Why not let people vote on whether they want a government-run public option as a choice on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance marketplaces? And how about the ACA’s voluntary, federally funded expansion of the Medicaid insurance program for low-income Americans? 

Democrats need to start now if they want to have solid candidates and policies on state ballots in 2016.

Many of the states that most need the Medicaid expansion don’t have it because of resistant governors, legislatures or both. Yet it is popular in some of those states, among them South Dakota, Virginia, Florida and several in the Deep South. Even if support fluctuates, a direct case — complete with evidence of dropping uninsured rates and fiscal benefits from the influx of federal money — is well worth making. One place to start would be Maine, where the legislature has passed the expansion five times only to have it vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, who was just re-elected.

Now, doesn’t that sound more fruitful than pointless battles against Republican congressional majorities for the next few years?

The other part of this state-centric equation, however, is more of a slog. State legislatures, like most of the cities where they meet, are not glamorous. But they are essential to launching and nurturing political talent. The National Conference of State Legislatures projects that about half of the next Congress will have served in state legislatures. Thirty-five newly elected senators and representatives have state legislative backgrounds, and two of the new senators — Joni Ernst of Iowa and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — are currently state lawmakers.

If you expand the state-oriented universe to executive officers, there’s even more reason for Democrats to shift their focus. A pool of experienced officeholders — lieutenant governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general and state legislators — is an invaluable asset in races for governor, senators, representatives and — as they make their way up — president. But only the GOP has recognized this in an organized fashion. Why? Let the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) explain: Hundreds of state officials have ascended to federal office, and half of all presidents, including Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, served in their state legislatures.

The RLSC is part of a network that includes groups specifically focused on secretaries of state, lieutenant governors, state legislators and candidate diversity. It raised nearly $26 million this year from 100,000 donors in all 50 states. By contrast, Democrats have a narrowly focused state legislative campaign committee that raised $9.3 million. As for state-level policy, conservatives have been promoting their ideas through the American Legislative Exchange Council for decades. Liberals just this week geared up to try to compete.

The urgency for Democrats can’t be overstated. They need to start now if they want to have solid candidates and policies on state ballots in 2016, when they may be able to capitalize on the high turnout and friendlier electorate of a presidential year. If any further incentive is needed, how about the prospect of a second round of Republican-dominated redistricting after the 2020 census? The last remapping locked in today’s House GOP majority. It’s up to Democrats to unlock it and in the process show the country that they are a capable, competitive party.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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