Democracy Alliance Blog / April 22, 2016

2020 Funds Update: The State Engagement Initiative

By DA Managing Director Julie Kohler, Committee on States Executive Director Scott Anderson, and DA Political Director Frank Smith

The contrast between red and blue states could not be more clear.

On Democracy:

Arizona dramatically cut its number of polling places in Maricopa County, requiring many of the states’ Latino residents to wait up to five hours to cast a ballot in the recent presidential primary, and eliminated its hugely successful Permanent Early Vote List. In contrast, California and Oregon enacted automatic voter registration, adding millions of eligible voters to the rolls.

On the Economy:

Wisconsin eliminated collective bargaining for public employees and, in 2015, became the 25th right-to-work state. Wisconsin, Georgia, and Florida have all slashed public spending to give tax cuts to high-income residents and corporations, another failed trickle-down strategy that has yielded falling median incomes well below the national average and lower rates of economic growth. In contrast, New York and California raised the minimum wage to $15/hour; New York enacted the most generous paid parental leave policy in the nation; and Minnesota raised taxes on the wealthiest 2%, passed the women’s economic security act, and lowered unemployment to 3.7%.

On Climate:

Ohio rolled back their clean energy law and resisted calls from local officials to limit or prohibit fracking, despite hundreds of complaints about contaminated water. Florida banned state environmental officials from using the term “climate change” and the Florida Supreme Court – by one vote – approved a highly misleading ballot proposal that will hamper the growth of rooftop solar in the Sunshine State.  In contrast, California enacted sweeping climate change legislation, requiring the state to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources and double energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030, with a focus on increasing investments in low-income communities.

Elections have immediate consequences, and the Right’s dominance in the states – with full trifecta control in 23 states (as opposed to progressives’ seven) – is a major roadblock to achieving our vision of a progressive America.

Winning elections in the states, therefore, is something we must do. Indeed, it’s how we take our country back.

Through the State Engagement Initiative (SEI), we’re working to do just that.

The good news is that we don’t need to go it alone. In all of the DA target states, tables of state-based donors — essentially mini-DAs — have been formed and are growing. In collaboration with the state infrastructure that they and the DA have helped to build, they are taking the long view and developing plans to win, not just this fall but over the next three election cycles.

Control of state legislatures and winning governorships are essential steps in helping us advance our economic, democracy, and climate policy goals. But it’s also our path to taking back power federally. If we do our work successfully, there is a potential of making 24 to 34 Congressional seats competitive in DA target states and sending congressional delegations to Washington that more accurately reflect voters’ preferences.

Since last fall, the SEI has invested more than $3 million into seven states, dollars that are matched at a minimum on a 1:1 basis by in-state donors. SEI’s early investments include:

  • Pennsylvania, where in 2015, the SEI made a critical investment that helped establish a progressive majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The judicial victories, along with protecting incumbent Governor Tom Wolf in 2018, should ensure more competitive congressional districts in the next decade.
  • Florida and Wisconsin, where there are major opportunities to capitalize on recent judicial decisions involving Florida’s congressional and legislative maps. Both states have multi-cycle electoral plans to win progressive legislative majorities by 2020, win back governorships, and thanks to the Fair Districts work in Florida, pick-up several previously uncompetitive congressional seats.
  • Arizona and New Mexico, where there are plans to harness the power of the New American Majority, win legislative majorities over multiple cycles, and advance critical ballot initiatives.
  • Minnesota, long the gold standard of progressive state infrastructure, where there is a plan to re-claim the state House in 2016, retain a Senate majority and governorship, and build new infrastructure to support leadership development and voter engagement in less resourced New American Majority communities.

Our work is just beginning. By the end of the year, we plan to grow SEI to $10 million, deepening our existing state investments and expanding into other critical states like Colorado, Ohio, Georgia, and Virginia.

The current crack-up of the Republican Party, the machinations of their presidential nomination process, and Trump’s sky-high negative ratings create distinct electoral opportunities for progressives this fall – up and down the ballot. But maximizing on those opportunities requires investment. The conservative stronghold on state power was decades in the making, cemented in 2010 after years of steady investment and intentional gerrymandering. It is up to us to make 2016 the year that conservative tide is reversed. By investing strategically, in partnership with local donors who are committing to their states for the long-run, we believe that we can do just that.