Eric Schneiderman: Allowing GOP to become dominant at state level led to Democratic defeats in 2016
State Democratic leaders will be key to checking federal power of GOP, New York's attorney general says
Editor’s Note: Eric Schneiderman is New York’s attorney general. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
As Democrats struggle to make sense of Donald Trump’s victory, we need look no further than our party’s failure at the state level.
We have allowed Republicans to dominate in state elections and build astonishing power. The GOP now controls 69 of 99 legislative chambers across America. They hold nearly two-thirds of the governors’ mansions. And, in 25 states, they have complete control of the government, including both executive and legislative branches. This gives Republicans control of the rules that govern voting and the reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts.
The big takeaway from 2016 is that, despite the public supporting many Democratic positions on policy, Republicans are now reaping the benefits of their 30-year organizing strategy, supported by dozens of mega-wealthy donors. As someone who has recruited and fundraised for state candidates, I know that while Democrats have been great at raising money for presidential candidates, Republicans have an overwhelming advantage as you move down-ballot.
Since 2010, Republican candidates at the state level have outraised their Democratic counterparts by more than $700 million, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In that same period, the Republican Governors Association outraised its Democratic counterpart by a nearly 2-to-1 margin and, at the state legislative level, Democrats were outraised nearly 3-to-1 before we even take into account independent expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And as Republicans have gained control at the state level, they’ve used their power to enact a massive phalanx of legal voter suppression – strict voter ID laws, cutbacks in early voting, new registration requirements and other regulations – aimed at depressing voters in core Democratic constituencies.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states added restrictive voting laws between the 2012 and 2016 elections. These states are home to 93 million people and hold 155 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
A few examples illuminate how this cynical strategy can translate into the Electoral College and tip the balance in a presidential election:
In Wisconsin, which Trump won by just over 25,000 votes, more than 10 times that many eligible voters – as many as 300,000 people – may have been disenfranchised because they lacked the proper ID under a strict new voter ID law.
While some of North Carolina’s more draconian voting restrictions were struck down just before the election, a purge of early voting sites remained in place. At the end of the state’s early voting period, a GOP memo heralded that African-American turnout had dropped nearly 9%. Trump won the state by fewer than 200,000 votes.
Florida, along with Iowa and Virginia, permanently disenfranchises anyone with a felony conviction. As a result, roughly 1.5 million Florida residents (almost 10% of the state’s population) are disenfranchised. This year, one in four of Florida’s black residents could not cast a ballot. Clinton lost Florida by just 112,000 votes.
The good news for Democrats is that this problem has a clear solution. The founders actually designed our federalist system to deal with attempts at overreach by the federal government. The provisions they put into place to check the power of a “tyrant” may now be put to their greatest test in American history. To be sure, faced with hegemonic Republican power at the federal level, our representatives in Washington need our support, but we may best have their backs by girding for real action at the state level.
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The first line of defense will be Democratic governors, attorneys-general and legislatures. Democratic activists must demand that their Democratic state leaders stand up to federal overreach and protect our most vulnerable residents, including immigrants and racial and religious minorities. Those activists should support Democrats when we do the right thing, and get in our faces when we shirk moral leadership.
More important for the long-term, we need a broad commitment from activists and donors to take back state governments, starting next year when New Jersey and Virginia have critical gubernatorial, attorney general and state legislative elections. Furthermore, a federal court recently ordered North Carolina to redraw its racially gerrymandered legislative districts and hold new elections in 2017. In 2018, 87 of 99 state legislatures and 36 governorships are up for re-election, the vast majority of which are held by Republicans.
This presents Democrats with a clear path forward. Most national progressive groups and donors have never sought to match the other side’s investment in building a state-by-state infrastructure. If we focus our attention where it needs to be, we can make significant gains in the next two years and blunt the worst aspects of the far-right agenda.
The road to a resurgent Democratic Party runs through Madison, Harrisburg, Columbus and Tallahassee. Even more important, it’s the path for winning successful progressive public policy and building a healthier, vibrant and just society.