WASHINGTON – Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announced last month that over the next two years his group Democracy for America will spend in state races with an eye toward building (or rebuilding) a Democratic advantage around the country.
“A little money goes a long way in these state legislative races,” Dean noted. To that end, his group will spend $750,000 this year on behalf of five candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates.
It’s hard to overstate how smart a way this is for liberal groups to invest their time and money. Virginia is a great case study for why state-level gains are key. Democrats control both of Virginia’s U.S. Senate seats, and the state was key to President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Despite this, Republicans control all three statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general) and the House of Delegates, and they have the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate. The result? Republicans have had little difficulty pushing a strong conservative agenda in Virginia.
Last week, for example, Gov. Bob McDonnell introduced an amendment that would ban abortion coverage in the health insurance exchange established under the Affordable Care Act. Given the GOP’s decisive advantage in the General Assembly, there’s little doubt this will pass.
What’s important to remember is that Virginia’s votes for Democratic Senate and presidential candidates suggest they aren’t hostile to Roe v. Wade. But these voters aren’t the ones turning out for off-year state elections (such as the one in which McDonnell was elected). Their older, whiter and wealthier counterparts are the ones who turn out, giving them outsize influence on policy in the commonwealth.
This dynamic was clear in the last round of midterm elections. In addition to losing control of the House in 2010, Democrats suffered huge losses on the state level. In Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and North Carolina — all blue states or swing states — Republicans won full or partial control of state legislatures, wrestling majorities away from Democrats. Not only did this give Republicans power to set agendas and make policy — to, say, break public-sector unions, pass voter identification laws and restrict abortion access — but it also allowed them to gerrymander congressional districts and ensure a more durable GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Moreover, it’s given Republicans another place from which to stymie the Obama agenda; in several blue or purple states, Obamacare implementation has been stalled by Republican governors and legislators who oppose the law.
Winning control of governorships and state legislatures is key if Democrats want to build political strength, advance priorities and secure their policy gains over the long term. Howard Dean’s new plan is a small but important step in the right direction.
Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect magazine, where he writes a blog.