Opinion

The Democrats' Get-Out-of-Manhattan Project

Why liberal billionaires need to entice Democrats to move to South Dakota

Whatever happens with the hotly contested Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5, the last several election cycles have laid bare the uphill battle Democrats have to win lasting control of the U.S. Senate and thus the ability to govern the country. How to win power despite the anti-majoritarian features of the political system is the central dilemma facing the American left today and for the foreseeable future, and the answer is not fiddling with messaging or straining to find the perfect candidates who can appeal to white working class voters. It is to geographically rebalance the country by strategically moving Democrats out of their big blue oases and into states where their votes will translate better into national power.

Sounds crazy, right? Until recently I thought so too. For years I've advocated adding states as one solution to the party's structural Senate deficit, but that requires first winning power in the chamber, with enough extra votes to pursue procedural escalation. Even with an unpopular president homicidally mismanaging a once-in-a-century public health crisis amidst a historic economic collapse, Democrats might fall just short of controlling the Senate next year. And if they do sweep the Georgia runoffs, they will nevertheless have to contend with moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who won't even commit to eliminating the filibuster, let alone inviting new states into the union. That means the party needs to face the reality that its current coalition, as constituted and distributed, might just be inadequate to capture and wield legislative power at the national level.

The party's struggles in the Senate weren't for lack of finding the right candidates. Despite all the recriminations about "defund the police" and "radical socialism," Democrats fielded contextually excellent nominees for red state Senate races in places like Kansas, Alaska, and Montana who ran as far away from activist slogans as possible, and they still came nowhere near winning. In Montana, Democrats recruited the popular, moderate sitting governor, Steve Bullock, who was competitive in polling but got crushed in the end by 10 points. In Kansas, the well-regarded party-switching moderate Barbara Bollier lost by 11. Independent Al Gross got torched by nearly 13 in Alaska. These were all seemingly winnable races where the Democratic candidates were polling reasonably well, if not exactly favored.

The fact that these races weren't even close, and that Democrats also blew contests in friendlier territory like North Carolina and Maine was one of the more dispiriting outcomes of the election for the left. To make matters more bleak, 2020 was clearly the Democrats' best chance to win the Senate in the near-term future. 2022 is a midterm election, and the president's party typically faces a backlash and rarely gains seats in Congress. There might be real pickup opportunities in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, but Democrats will also be playing defense in Nevada and New Hampshire. The 2024 Senate map is the same brutal set of contests that saw Democrats lose two seats despite a hugely favorable national environment in 2018.

Some analysts think the answer here is simple: Do more to appeal to voters in these states. Yet the idea that Democrats just need a different message to reach white voters in predominantly rural states is a difficult one to sustain. Persuasion can't melt negative partisanship. Conservatives have created a closed-loop information universe, and its architects will attack Democrats with the same language and accusations no matter who they are, what they say, or what their record is. The GOP's struggles with younger voters even in some of their strongholds portends long-term trouble, but there will be no demographic deliverance for Democrats anytime soon.

There is no sugarcoating how bad this situation is. Any chance at enacting long-sought pieces of the progressive agenda, including any iteration of Medicare-for-all, electoral system reform, and the Green New Deal, requires at some point capturing unified control of Washington, D.C. Throwing up their hands and accepting that the party will simply never get to fully govern the country should be an unacceptable answer for anyone who cares about the future of the planet and hopes to ever live in a functional modern country.

Ultimately, if they can't beat Republicans, progressives might have to join them — by moving.

There was some half-serious joking about getting large numbers of liberals to move to Georgia in advance of the runoffs, but that might be the only way to reverse the party's long-term disadvantage in the upper chamber. After all, in-migration of educated professionals has been one of the keys to Georgia's transformation into a swing state, and of the Sun Belt into a region where Democrats are competitive in statewide races. The Atlanta metro area gained more than 90,000 people from domestic migration in 2016 alone, as the region continued to attract businesses from other cities, as well as younger people in search of affordable simulacra of the cities they are priced out of.

But Democrats can't necessarily afford to sit back, hope for the best, and wait for internal migration patterns to remake the Senate map for them. What they really need to do is target a set of states where vote margins are close enough that an influx of blue-leaning residents could quickly and dramatically shift the partisan balance.

Among the ideal candidates are the sparsely populated states of the Great Plains and Mountain West, which owe their existence to the efforts of 19th century Republicans to manipulate control of the Senate. The Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington were admitted in a two-year span from 1889 to 1890 by Republicans in a deliberate effort to shore up their power. As Heather Cox Richardson argues at The Atlantic, that ploy is still paying dividends 130 years later. While Washington state is now a reliable Democratic stronghold, the other five lightly populated, Gilded Age fabrications are the backbone of Republican strength in the Senate.

Luckily, it wouldn't take that much to turn these states into battlegrounds. The total margin between President-elect Joe Biden and President Trump in Wyoming, Montana, North, and South Dakota was about 450,000. Attracting just half a million or people to this region could flip eight Senate seats and completely transform the politics of this country. Democrats have nearly two million superfluous (politically, of course, not morally) voters in Los Angeles County alone, and another 500,000 just in Brooklyn. They're out there — the challenge is getting enough of them to move to places that are considered somewhat remote, on a quest that many will think is absurd.

How can you move people at such a scale? One piece would be a deliberate, coordinated national strategy to help Democrats from California, New York, Illinois, and other party strongholds buy property and establish primary residence in target states, coordinated by some kind of progressive agency with a long-range vision. But there's probably only so many people out there committed enough to the future Democratic control of the U.S. Senate to uproot their lives for no other reason, and that number is unlikely be anywhere near close to enough to flip even one of these states.

That means an accelerated push to replicate the most important thing that attracted people to Georgia and the New South in the first place — jobs in flourishing, growing metropolitan areas. Instead of lighting $200 million on fire on quixotic runs at the Democratic nomination for president, ultrarich liberals like Tom Steyer should invest in creating institutions and businesses in these states that will mostly attract Democrats. Build the progressive version of right-wing Liberty University (enrollment: 79,000) in Billings, Montana. Create an enormous, state of the art research hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming — the Sloan-Kettering (20,000 employees) of the Plains. Encourage some Silicon Valley titans to set up shop there. Bankroll an enormous progressive media operation and plop it in Casper, Wyoming.

The best targets for this operation are Montana and Wyoming, which boast access to extraordinary natural beauty near the kind of population centers that Brooklyn transplants would probably want to live in. Billings and Helena, Montana, are both within day-tripping distance of Yellowstone National Park, as well as a number of other staggeringly beautiful national forests and attractions. Seriously, these states are extremely gorgeous. Behold the mountains ringing Casper, Wyoming! Gaze upon the picaresque landscapes of Helena, Montana! While neither state is as cheap as the Deep South, housing prices are still vastly more affordable than in New York City, San Francisco, or Boston. And there's also North Carolina, which remains extremely affordable, sends two Republican senators to D.C., and where only 74,453 votes separated Biden and Trump this year.

Of course, this might all sound a bit loony. But what's the alternative? Another decade of disastrous minority rule by incompetent, increasingly unhinged Republicans whose commitment to democracy is collapsing before our eyes? The slow-motion dismantling of voting rights and worker power by a Supreme Court majority of zealots? If that doesn't sound appealing, it might be time to pack your bags.

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