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It’s Time to Take Back the States | Commentary

This week, The New York Times highlighted one of the most underdiscussed stories in American politics. Its front page piece, headlined “A National Strategy Funds States Political Monopolies,” looked at the Republican takeover of state legislatures in 2010 and why Democrats must seize this moment to fight back.

Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office in 23 states across the country. They flipped 21 state legislative chambers in 2010 alone. As The New York Times’ Nick Confessore observed, “Their party’s success has empowered Republican lawmakers in dozens of states to redraw legislative districts on both the state and federal levels, potentially ensuring their party’s control of the United States House of Representatives for the rest of the decade.”

If Democrats want to stop the right-wing Republican wave endangering middle-class job security, the rights of women and other progressive principles, mobilizing to win statehouses across the country must be a top priority in 2014.

Upcoming legislative elections will also be crucial to Democrats’ electoral fortunes for years to come because state legislatures control congressional redistricting.

As executive director of a super PAC created last cycle — General Majority PAC — I recognize the devastating consequences of an increasing Republican foothold at the state level. And I experienced the success we can achieve by making a well-planned, -funded and -executed campaign to win state legislative races a priority. We must target other state races for similar efforts in 2014.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Stymied in Washington, the Republicans are using state legislatures to enforce the extreme right-wing agenda that they’ve been unable to get through Congress. In Arizona, Michigan and Virginia alone, Republican-controlled legislatures have passed laws jeopardizing women’s health services and the right to choose, workers’ rights to collectively bargain, and the rights of minorities to vote without challenge or intimidation.

All but one of the states with no minimum wage, or with state minimum wages lower than the federal minimum, are controlled by Republicans. Conversely, the nine states with the highest minimum wages have Democrat-controlled legislatures. Of the 22 states that observe the antiworker laws known as “right-to-work,” all but two are controlled by Republican legislatures. And in state after state run by Republican legislatures, protections for women’s health care are being dismantled at an alarming pace.

None of this is by coincidence, but rather the result of a premeditated plan by the Republican Party. Having all but lost those and other policy fights in Washington, the Republicans decided they would prevail at the state level with a surprise attack to capture control of the legislatures.

In 2010, they quietly spent $30 million on state legislative races and flipped control of 21 state chambers. In the last month of the campaign, they poured millions of dollars into Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states — seizing scores of Democratic seats with an avalanche of money that caught our party off-guard. The Republican sweep of statehouses that year gave them a ticket to reshape the congressional map in their favor.

We must not let that happen again. Last year, our new super PAC targeted the legislative contests in New Jersey, where the Republican governor’s anticipated landslide re-election threatened the Democrats’ control of the state Senate and Assembly. Working with labor and other advocacy groups, we raised $8.4 million in an unprecedented campaign to stop the Republican tide. Conceived along models used at the national level, we unleashed a blitz of TV, radio and direct mail advertising, as well as online sites and door-to-door voter outreach.

The campaign was a success. Despite the Republican landslide at the top of the ballot, Republicans were unable to gain even one seat in the 120 legislative races. The super PAC also championed a referendum to raise the state’s minimum wage.

This is a critical year, with most states holding legislative elections. Democrats are positioned to gain seats in Pennsylvania and Iowa, while in Oregon the party faces a pitched battle to maintain control. Similar challenges await in countless other states. Democrats must not surrender both the issues agenda and redistricting to the Republicans, enabling them to reshape the congressional map to their electoral advantage.

The New Jersey effort is a shining example of what Democrats must do across the country in 2014 and beyond. It’s time to take that effort national. With the same commitment of time, resources and enthusiasm, Democrats can reclaim the Democratic Party’s control of the political and policy agendas in statehouses across the nation, and level the playing field that has heavily tilted Republican.

Jonathan Levy is the executive director of General Majority PAC, the principle national Democratic super PAC focused on electing state legislators.

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