Tuesday’s election results should have progressives worried. There is an ever-widening power deficit for Democrats in state legislatures and governor’s mansions across the country. The dominance of Republicans in the states has significant implications not just for state policy, but for who controls Congress as well. If we don’t mobilize quickly to invest in the states, conservatives’ consolidation of power will take decades to dismantle.
The results from Kentucky and Virginia are not just local losses; they are part of a much bigger problem facing Democrats nationwide. In Kentucky, Democrats lost the governorship, leaving them only four statewide elected offices across the entire South. In Virginia, despite the best efforts of Gov. Terry McAuliffe and millions of dollars invested by outside progressive groups, the Republicans maintained control of the state’s Senate. These losses continue an alarming national trend in state legislative races, in which Democrats have lost 900 state seats in the past seven years alone.
It was not always like this for the Democrats. In fact, in the aftermath of Watergate, Democrats had full control of 35 state legislatures, while Republicans had only four. Fast forward to today, and Democrats now have given over control of all but seven.
The root of this problem is that, for too long, progressives have neglected to do the hard work of state infrastructure building. It simply has not been a priority for the donor class and broader party elites, who have instead opted to spend billions of dollars every four years for the presidential cycle.
We must do better. The conservative playbook on how to build power from the bottom up is a good place to start. Their strategy begins with deepening their bench of candidates and giving them the training and support they need during elections. Just look at the relatively diverse group of Republican candidates for president. Many of them are former governors or state legislators who have been groomed and equipped by the party for years. Progressives can and must do this work.
In addition, there’s coordinated state infrastructure. Conservatives have invested heavily in groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft legislation, the State Policy Network to coordinate local think tanks, and Americans for Prosperity to mobilize a grassroots presence in states around the country. This well-funded machine has enabled conservatives to advance policies such as the infamous Stand Your Ground, which they passed in seventeen states in one year. Progressives must invest in similar infrastructure, especially in moving legislation, so that state legislators get the support they need to govern effectively, pass policies that help working families, and more effectively fight back against extremist legislation like Stand Your Ground.
Finally, there’s redistricting. Most state legislatures are tasked with drawing the maps that determine who gets elected to Congress, and that only happens once every ten years. Conservatives have had a clear and deliberate strategy to control state legislatures in order to redraw the U.S. congressional map. As a result, in 2012, they won only 48% of the House vote nationally, but still managed to hold a lead of 33 seats over Democrats. Progressives must adopt the long view and prioritize states where they can impact the redistricting maps. If investments are not made quickly in turning the tide of electoral losses before the 2020 census and redistricting process, Democrats will give away another decade of control of the House of Representatives to Republicans.
As progressives, we need to refocus ourselves—and quickly. The status quo where we win the presidency and lose everywhere else is unsustainable. Tuesday’s election should serve as yet another wake-up call to rethink our approach. Absent a change in mentality that focuses on immediate and significant resource allocation toward real infrastructure-building at the state level, progressives will continue to see a further erosion of our power for years or even decades to come.
Nick Rathod is executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, an organization that serves as a resource center for state legislators to pass progressive policy items across the country.