Commentary: Why Californians are working to flip red state legislatures blue

Concerned about the future of the country and determined to wrest political power from the far right, a group of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area gather once a month to talk politics at brunch, happy hour, and Zoom meetings.

Their focus is about 2,300 miles away in Lansing, Michigan, where these Californians are trying to turn a red state legislature blue. In the past, it may have been unseemly or just odd for activists to influence local elections far from home. But that has changed. The loss of abortion rights nationally and former President Trump’s attempts to undermine election results in key states have made it clear that control of state legislatures really matters.

On this particular day, several weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, the friends received a pep talk designed to help Democrats understand something Republicans had a clue about long ago.

“If you care about Congress, you should care about the state legislatures, because the state legislatures draw the county lines that decide who gets into Congress,” said Melissa Walker, who serves as director of the States Project for the election of Democrats in state legislatures, said a Zoom call with the Bay Area group.

“If you care about the Supreme Court, you should care about state legislatures. Because the Supreme Court does not make laws, it decides laws, many of which emerge from state legislatures. It was a Mississippi law that brought down Roe… It was written by state legislatures. And across the country.”

Heads nodded across the zoom windows as Walker’s message came through.

The tug-of-war over the balance of power in Washington devoured a lot of media attention and donations. But issues that touch people’s lives most closely are largely decided in state capitals. Is your minimum wage more than $7.25 an hour? Can You Get Medicaid Health Insurance Through the Affordable Care Act? Can you have an abortion? The answers depend on what state you live in and who has power in the statehouse.

But in state capitals across the country, Democrats have a lot of catching up to do. The GOP controls 62% of the Legislative Chambers in statehouses – if only 47% of voters nationwide consider themselves Republicans.

Republicans have beaten Democrats to fundraising for state legislative campaigns over the past decade. In 2010, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect GOP state legislators, raised nearly $30 million, while its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, reportedly raised less than $10 million an analysis by the Center for Political Accountability. In 2020, the gap was smaller, but the Democratic group still lagged behind, raising nearly $45 million versus the Republican group’s $60 million.

Now a small but growing movement on the left is trying to get Democrats to pay attention to some of America’s most overlooked political contests – races that determine which party controls power in state houses.

Democratic strategists and party officials are Discussions with major donors on the need to allocate more money to state-level races. The focus is on a democratic super PAC overturn state parliaments in Arizona, Michigan and Minnesota. Groups like the States Project and Sister District organize grassroots campaigns to recruit volunteers and raise small donations. That means convincing people like the group of friends in the Bay Area that they should care who makes state laws in Phoenix, Lansing and St. Paul.

“I didn’t realize before that I was supposed to be active in other-state politics in California,” said Ellen Blinderman, an instructor at Bay Area Community College who helped organize her friends to try and help Democrats the Giving control of Michigan to the Legislature.

“But we are one country, and what happens in those states affects our entire country.”

By forming a give circle with the States Project, Blinderman and her friends are now part of a strategic effort to swap two seats in the Michigan House and three seats in the state Senate. First, they set a goal of raising $8,000. At monthly potlucks, they invited friends and neighbors to learn why they help Michigan Democrats and asked them to donate to the effort. Once the goal was met, they bumped it up to $10,000 — and are now 91% on their way there, mostly, Blinderman says, with donations under $200.

The money helps fund advertising and professional campaign workers who help candidates connect with voters who might otherwise not show up for a low-turnout campaign. It is intended to help Democrats in races that the States Project has identified as crucial to winning a majority. Legislative races are generally not very expensive — in some cases, Walker said, it costs less to turn over an entire legislative chamber than it does to turn over a congressional seat.

For proof of how many decisions by a state legislature can spill across state lines, just look at what’s happened since the Supreme Court vacated Roe vs. Wade. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states passed away quickly prohibit laws Cancellation. Democratic-controlled California, meanwhile, set about preparing for an influx of visitors seeking reproductive care.

The California Legislature has passed 15 bills Expand access to abortion and dedicated $200 million to abortion services, some of which provide funds to patients traveling here from other states.

“Do you need an abortion?” say Billboards Gov. Gavin Newsom paid in South Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

“California is ready to help.”

Walker of the States Project told me her group received a spate of inquiries after the Supreme Court’s draft advisory opinion was leaked. In 2020, the group had 100 circles of donors working to raise money for Democrats to target state houses. It now has 200, including one titled “In Response to Roe” and one titled “Down with Dobbs”.

The aftermath of Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election is another reason Democrats are bracing themselves for state house power. After losing re-election, Trump pressured Republican legislature in states won by Joe Biden to overturn the election results. They didn’t — but now some of these GOP lawmakers are being ousted from office by pro-Trump voters. The lie that the election was stolen has become established as fact in some Republican-controlled legislatures. And the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could give lawmakers immense new powers in deciding presidential elections.

While state-centric activism is growing on the left, it’s still not nearly as robust as it needs to be, says David Pepper, a former Ohio Democratic Party leader who has written a book on the GOP’s dominance in state capitals Has Called “Laboratories of Autocracy”.

Involving blue state residents in an attempt to flip the red state legislature is “a really smart strategy,” he told me.

“My main criticism is that it doesn’t have to be just a side effort by a really smart group, it has to be a core missionary approach of everyone who cares about democracy – and fast. Because it’s so important to really fight back where the fight is really going on.” Commentary: Why Californians are working to flip red state legislatures blue

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