It's no secret that the Democratic Party in the states has withered during Barack Obama's eight years in office. That usually happens — people tend to blame the president for everything from foreign crises to the crack in the sidewalk in front of their house, and take it out on his party — but the decline during this presidency has been particularly steep. And now, as Democrats try to claw their way out of the crater they find themselves in, they need to pay attention to the states, as much as they may not want to.
The trouble is that very few people find state politics compelling, and I'll admit I'm no exception. It can be hard to care about what happens at the minor league ballpark when the World Series is going on. It doesn't excite billionaire donors, who want to turn on CNN and see the results of their efforts (and want to hobnob with the prominent figures who'll receive their money). It doesn't motivate young activists to march in the streets. It doesn't attract the attention of the national media — and local media have been decimated in recent years, particularly in their coverage of state and local politics.
And it's going to be particularly hard now, given who just got elected president. Donald Trump will be so disastrous in so many ways — some of which we haven't even imagined yet — that it will be hard for any Democrat to turn their attention away from him. How can you worry about a state representative race when the president might plunge us into a nuclear war because somebody flamed him on Twitter?
It's not easy. But it's necessary.
The reason is not just that state legislatures and governors make laws that affect people's lives, but that what happens in states feeds into national politics. For instance, when the Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act, it's Republican state legislatures that go on a voter suppression spree, putting up barriers to African-Americans and other likely Democrats getting registered and getting to the polls. That means fewer Democratic members of Congress get elected, and the Democratic presidential candidate has a tougher time. And the circle goes round and round.
Consider Wisconsin. When Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010 in the Tea Party wave, his party flipped the state's legislature from blue to red. GOP state legislators joined his effort to destroy the state's unions, which was largely successful. In 2011 they passed a voter ID law, which according to Ari Berman left 300,000 eligible voters without an ID that would be accepted at the polls. Hillary Clinton lost the state by 27,000 votes — the first time a Democratic presidential candidate lost there since 1984.
That's just one state, but the Democrats' situation is truly desperate across the country. They had hoped to flip at least 10 or 12 state legislative chambers in this election, but in the end they flipped four but lost three. So come next year there will be 25 states where Republicans control the entire legislature and the governor's mansion. Democrats will have total control in five. There are 99 legislative chambers (Nebraska's is unicameral); Republicans control 68 and Democrats control only 31.
For that to change, Democrats at all levels have to put the same kind of effort and thought into the state legislature that they do into national politics. There's nothing wrong with giving $100 to Hillary Clinton's campaign, but it would have made more of a difference to your local state representative candidate, who didn't have a half-billion dollar budget. The same is true if you're a major donor, or if you want to volunteer for a campaign, or if you want to do some lobbying on a critical issue, or if you want to run for office yourself. Every opportunity that exists on the national level can be found in a smaller version at the state level — where you can have more of an impact.
That will matter for 2018, where Democrats are likely to make some gains just by virtue of being the party out of power. But it may be even more important in 2020, when there's another presidential election that drives higher turnout. That's because there's a census in 2020, and afterward the states will redraw their congressional and state legislative district lines. Because Republicans had a great year in 2010, they were able to use that process to solidify their advantage. Democrats may be able to do the same in four years — but only if they can produce a wave.
And waves don't just happen — they're made by people putting in attention, money, effort, and time. For Democrats to get back what they've lost and are about to lose, it isn't going to be nearly enough to fight Donald Trump and defeat him in four years. They've got a lot of work to do on the state level too, because the two will go hand in hand.