Where Democrats can get the most bang for their buck

Flip! State! Legislatures!

The White House and a smaller building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

For obvious reasons, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is sucking up most of the attention span of Democratic voters. The man in the White House is frankly tearing the country to pieces, and he must be turfed out of office.

However, there are good reasons for the Democrats to focus most on downballot races — particularly the control of state legislatures. A "State of the States" report from Aaron Kleinman at the Future Now Fund — a deep dive into the state of both national and local politics of the moment — shows how neglected state politics is both considerably easier to influence and also controls much of the foundation of national politics. Democrats have clawed back some of the appalling state-level losses that happened during the Obama years, but it will be critical to not be distracted by Trump and keep pushing in the states.

To start with, any presidential race is hard to influence — and especially so in 2020. The election is overwhelmingly going to turn on how people judge Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic collapse, and the nationwide outbreak of protests against racial injustice. Democratic ads and so forth can influence that process somewhat, but the actual reality of what is happening is far more important.

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Despite the fact that presidential elections have been getting ever-more ridiculously expensive over the years, an individual dollar of spending is all but useless in a presidential race. The advertising markets are saturated, the media covers every single twist and turn of the campaign, and as a result, most people's attitudes are heavily baked in.

Now, that is somewhat less true for Senate and House races. These campaigns are not as expensive as the presidential race, but they do get a great deal of attention, and moving the political needle there takes considerable time and effort.

But at the state level, there is a lot of very cheap low-hanging fruit. Where citizens are being constantly blasted with information about the presidential race, most people do not even know who their state legislators are. A few thousand dollars to spend on mailers, local ads, phone banking, and so forth can be the difference between victory and defeat. And in the few states where the partisan balance is relatively close, a measly $100,000 and some social media posts from the right people could conceivably flip control of a legislature. "Just a little bit of attention goes a long way to win majorities in state chambers," Kleinman told The Week.

Should the party win control of state government (or disrupt Republican control), they could of course influence state policy — passing the Medicaid expansion, rolling back vote suppression, increasing taxes on the rich, and so on. Crime policy deserves special attention, given how the George Floyd protests have focused enormous attention on police brutality and mass incarceration. Rolling those back will require taking control of states, since that is where most crime policy is made.

But additionally, state political structures have enormous influence over national politics. This is a census year, and there is therefore an opportunity for next's year's legislatures to undo some of the grossly unfair gerrymandering that Republicans have done over the years. Kleinman provides a very detailed picture of every swing state, both in the demographics that seem most promising for Democrats and the specific races that are both possible and most important to win. For example, gaining control of the Florida House and disrupting the Republican gerrymander "could be worth five U.S. House seats for a decade," while doing the same in Texas might net the Democrats another five to seven seats. In other words, Democrats might get 120 seat-years in the House through a comparatively modest investment of time and effort.

Now, those on the left might be rather suspicious of the Democratic Party establishment following this advice, given their terrible record of both losing at the state level and not doing anything when they do win power. But the handy thing about Kleiman's analysis is that it works as a guide for any organization with a bit of cash, some volunteers, and a good candidate or two. (The Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, have gotten quite good at picking off state races, particularly in New York.)

Democrats are of course going to spend a lot of money and time on the presidential race. It's simply too big to ignore. But they ought to save some space for state races even during the national campaign. Republicans have caught Democrats napping far too many times in state contests, and used the victories to rig future elections. Biden or other party bigwigs simply mentioning some of the key swing campaigns could tip Democratic candidates into victory, where they could undo Republican cheating, and thereby help the party to actually pass things through Congress. If the party is really serious about cleaning up this smoking national ruin, that is what they must do.

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