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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edsall: Dems Lagging Badly in State Politics

In his New York Times op-ed, “What if All Politics Is National?,” Thomas B. Edsall addresses gnarly issues for Democrats, including the increasing polarization of national politics, the “inefficient distribution of Democratic voters,” the role of growing inequality, and most troubling of all, the triumph of the GOP in state politics. As always, Edsall’s entire column merits a thoughtful read. We’ll just quote from his observations about Republican domination at the state level, a problem which cries out for a more effective Democratic response:

In the states, just over half the population lives under one-party Republican rule. While Congress and the White House cannot agree on taxes, spending, immigration or any major issue, leaders in the 24 Republican-controlled states are winning enactment of a comprehensive conservative agenda.
Put another way, in a nation where the two major political parties are roughly equal, Republicans have full control of 24 states with 47.8 percent of the population, 152.4 million, Democrats have full control of only 7 states with 15.8 percent, 49.1 million. The remaining 17 states are under split control.
…Republican success at the state level – in contrast with control of the United States House and Senate – has empowered the party to actually make policy without the crippling effects of partisan gridlock.
More law and regulatory policy – much of it conservative and controversial – has been enacted at the state level than at any other level of government in the past five years. In terms of policy initiatives, the 24 states where Republicans are in full control are the most productive of all: the 11 Confederate states, except Virginia, along with Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska (with a nominally non-partisan legislature), Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah.
It is in these states that the retrenchment from social and economic liberalism is moving into high gear, as much of the rest of the country and the federal government remains mired in conflict…Democrats may have the edge in presidential elections, but Republicans now have the advantage where it counts: in the states, where they can set the policies that govern a majority of citizens’ daily lives.

That’s a lot for Democrats to worry about. It took a long time, too long, for Democrats to put together a challenge to the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been credited with spearheading the GOP’s domination of state politics. Progressive organizations like the State Innovation Exchange (SIX), the Association of State Democratic Chairs and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) are struggling to develop effective strategies and resources for restoring political balance in the nation’s state legislatures.
The Center for Media and Democracy has had some impressive success in holding ALEC’s corporate supporters accountable. CMD reports that “As of August 2015, at least 106 corporations and 19 non-profits — for a total of 120 private sector members — have publicly announced that they cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council…(four of those corporations have subsequently returned to ALEC, and many of the non-profits listed by ALEC as “lapsed” in August 2013 share an ideological agenda with and noted their desire to return to ALEC).”
Looking forward, ending ALEC’s reign of reaction in the state legislatures will require that a lot more progressives pay attention to politics at the state level and support Democratic candidates for state legislatures. Even with a Democratic landslide in 2016, winning back political balance in state governments will be a long, difficult haul. A more energized progressive coalition to meet this challenge is overdue.

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