The single oddest thing about the fifty-state strategy is surely the adjective often attached to it: "controversial."
Just how, exactly, could there be controversy over a national political party organizing nationally--especially after years of pissing billions into an ever-shrinking "target" slice of the country, ceding wider and wider chunks of territory and disdaining the grassroots while Republicans built a powerful army of ground troops? The DNC's fifty-state project is relatively inexpensive, compared with the costs of the thirty-second TV ad blitzes the party has increasingly relied on to target voters in Ohio and Florida. Salaries for the state parties run to about $8 million annually, considerably less than 10 percent of the DNC's budget and downright humble compared with what the GOP and its affiliates spend for similar party work.
In just two years, the belated catch-up effort has paid off in at least two tangible ways: It has exponentially multiplied grassroots party involvement and--in a short-term benefit not even envisioned by its architects--has helped win an impressive number of state, local and Congressional elections in majority-Republican regions. That's not to mention the intangible benefits of fanning out 180 Democratic organizers, fundraisers and communications specialists across the map, many of them working in places like western North Carolina, where, as one local activist puts it, "a lot of Democrats think of the national party as the devil itself." As the chair of the most overwhelmingly Republican of states, Utah's Wayne Holland, wrote last year, "Democrats have become outsiders who do things to us, not insiders who do things for us. The fifty-state strategy is one way to turn it around."
It is, in short, one of the brightest ideas the DNC has had in its undistinguished history. And the timing could not have been better: The organizing is providing a channel for the disgust inspired by the mounting catastrophes of the Bush years. In deep-red states like Utah, it's ticked up the number of Democrats voting and candidates running (30 percent more in 2006). In "purple" states like North Carolina, where Democrats dominate most local and statewide elections, it's helping to turn red counties purple and purple counties blue, uncorking a new strain of progressive populism--the kind that won Senate races in Virginia for Jim Webb, Montana for Jon Tester and Ohio for Sherrod Brown.
And it might not outlive the next presidential election.
Why? For starters, look no further than the other modifier often attached to the effort: "Howard Dean's fifty-state strategy." From the moment the former Vermont governor launched his campaign for DNC chair in the wake of the Democrats' 2004 debacle, the party establishment--that shadowy claque of high-paid consultants, big-money donors, lobbyists, pundits, Clintonites and Congressional leaders--has been at pains to paint Dean's vision as another manifestation of the out-of-control tendencies they fretted about, and whispered so gainfully to the media about, when he ran for President.
Dean's campaign for party chair was an outsider's run at the ultimate insider's job, spurred by a meeting he had at the 2004 national convention with disgruntled party leaders from eighteen long-neglected "red" states. In his own 2004 run, Dean had "found himself in the odd position of a candidate in charge of a movement that grew up almost accidentally around him," says Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard public-policy lecturer and highly unlikely "Deaniac" best known for encouraging the party's break with New Deal liberalism as a Democratic Leadership Council strategist. "That gave him the insights that led to the fifty-state strategy."
Dean had also studied the national rise of Republicanism, when the GOP built from the ground up in Southern and Western states that had long been tough terrain for them. "The Republicans sat down thirty years ago and figured out how to do this," Dean says. "Through disciplined organization they were able to take over the country." He spotted another kink in the Democratic works, says strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager. "Republicans start the campaign the day after an election, win or lose. They don't wait to have a nominee before they start putting together a battle plan," she says. "Same on down the line, state and local. Democrats have started the day the nominee is selected, which is just bass-ackwards. We haven't had a party; we've had candidates and campaigns." That's one reason, Dean believes, Democrats haven't projected a strong national image, while GOP themes of low taxes and high morals have resonated loud and clear. "It's been a problem that presidential campaigns are where our themes are developed," he says. "Presidential campaigns are risk-averse by their nature, and it's not the best place to be developing your message and thinking big picture about where your party stands."