First, and again, progressives are winning many policy victories in the states. This work is too extensive and varied to be easily summarized. It includes "clean money" campaign finance reform, disclosure and clawback rules on corporate subsidies, smart-growth development policies, myriad healthcare reforms, expanded transportation options, renewable-energy initiatives, living-wage and minimum-wage hikes, inclusionary housing, expansions in civil rights, alternatives to incarceration, and a nearly endless stream of air- and water-quality initiatives, including many directed against our current government in Washington. If nothing else, this shows public openness to progressive alternatives, if they are put before it.
Second, there are contrary trends to Republican electoral dominance, or at least, in its spreading darkness, some points of light. While in 2002 Republicans edged past Democrats in partisan legislative seats for the first time in fifty years, moderate to progressive Democrats won governorships in a number of states (Blagojevich in Illinois, Doyle in Wisconsin, Granholm in Michigan, Napolitano in Arizona, Rendell in Pennsylvania, Richardson in New Mexico), many of which had been long occupied by Republicans. While in 2003 the overall Republican seat lead widened slightly, in New Jersey Democrats retook control of the state legislature, in a highly visible voter validation of Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey's strong environmental policies. Several governors have backed tax increases and survived. No great surprises here either, but grounds for rational hope at the voting booth.
Third, what most impresses about state politics right now is its competitiveness. The split in governors, chambers and legislative control are all close enough that a single election or two could easily swing the parties back to parity. If Kerry wins and has more than T-shirt-length coattails, that might happen very soon. The difference in partisan share of legislative seats, for example, is really razor thin: 0.9 percent--a number that might suggest competitiveness to anyone. In twenty-five (out of ninety-nine) legislative chambers, a shift of three or fewer states would change party control or result in a tie. Even a small improvement in progressive electoral organization could make a very large difference.
What It Takes
What would it take to take better advantage of progressive opportunities in the states, to build on present organizing while bringing it to greater coherence and scale, to stop the right and then build some lasting governing power of our own?
Essentially what's needed is a partial equivalent of what is already provided on the other side by the right, a shared capacity to win elections and govern. We need the capacity to continually map the election terrain within states, identify open and challengeable seats in local as well as state office, and develop credible long-range plans for targeting them to the point of gaining core legislative and executive power. We need a massively scaled-up capacity to recruit, train and place reliable progressives, ideally recruited from our own ranks, as candidates for those races. We need a clearinghouse on model legislation and administrative practice, and supports to elected officials prepared to move them (talking points, examples of success elsewhere, expert support, etc.). We need the capacity to regularly convene progressive elected officials, both regionally and nationally, for discussion of common problems, and training in the program content, organizing skills and strategic collaborations that might help solve them.
At those gatherings we should leave lots of room for networking by elected officials from different parts of the country, and interaction with non-electoral advocacy groups. We want them to begin to think of themselves as not alone, and to act more confidently and reliably as part of a broader progressive movement. We need to maintain that network through regular communication and explicit coordination of efforts across different sites. We need a well-equipped "war room" to provide targeted assistance to progressive electeds in legislative or electoral fights--onsite expert help, campaign coordination, polling, opposition research, whatever it takes to win. Finally, we would need some sort of "table," seated by interested and committed parties, to get coordination among these efforts, and connect them to progressive work aimed more directly at national politics.
Electoral plans, recruitment and training of candidates fitted to them, program, convenings, campaign and legislative support, a table to coordinate these efforts and connect them to other parts of the progressive movement--that's what we need. It's not rocket science. It's just work. And it need not even cost a huge amount of money. Billions of dollars will be spent this electoral cycle, a billion at least on the presidential race alone. Building the capacities just described would cost very little in comparison. Just $10 million a year would be enough to get it started in earnest.