When the "blue wave" that swept America November 7 crashed into the Colorado Statehouse, it gave Democrats the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since John Kennedy was in the White House. Governor-elect Bill Ritter accepted the vote as a mandate to implement his party's "Colorado Promise" to make basic healthcare available to all Coloradans, strengthen public education, bridge the digital divide and make Colorado the nation's leader in the development of renewable energy using sustainable resources.
The Colorado shift was not unique. In fifteen states, Democrats now control the governor's mansion and both legislative chambers, up from six before the election. In another twenty-five, Democrats control either the governorship or one or more legislative chambers. In all, they have six more governors and more than 300 new legislators nationwide, along with a new crop of activist attorneys general and secretaries of state. With their return to the dominant position they held in the states before the 1994 "Republican revolution" election, the Democrats are positioned to check the Bush Administration from below, reassert their role in the redistricting process, assist a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate in battleground states and implement a radically different vision of government's priorities and potential.
In the fifteen states where Democrats are now in full control, the party has the power to act quickly and decisively. And while there are no guarantees--just as DC Democrats are pressured by special interests and strategists to be cautious and compromising, Democrats in the states feel pulls to the center--there are positive signs. Iowa's new Democratic governor, Chet Culver, pledges to work with Democratic legislative majorities to raise the minimum wage to $7.25. In New Hampshire, where for the first time in 130 years Democrats will control the governorship and the legislature, there's already talk of reversing GOP-sponsored restrictions on a woman's right to choose.
Why did things go so right for the Democrats in the states? Democratic efforts to nationalize the election worked. "With a lot of echoes of 1994, when the tide moved almost entirely in the direction of Republicans," says Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, "this time the tide moved almost entirely in the direction of Democrats." Another factor: Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's "50 state strategy," though much derided by Washington insiders, put resources in states where Democrats had long been outgunned. And the recruitment and training of legislative candidates by Progressive Majority, a creation of labor leaders, Congress members and progressive donors, paid off in a big way in states like Colorado, Washington, Ohio and Wisconsin. "When it became clear that this was going to be a good year for Democrats, we were ready to capitalize on it because Progressive Majority had candidates ready to go," says Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan.
Pocan, who is active with the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, says, "Democrats in the states now have the power to act on issues that have been stalled in Washington." He's got a point. The shift in power at the state level should slow the God-guns-gays GOP agenda and refocus attention on neglected issues. New York's Democratic Governor-elect, Eliot Spitzer, was a leader in efforts to build multistate coalitions to challenge the Bush Administration on environmental issues when he served as attorney general, and he can do even more as a high-profile governor. Watch for Maine Governor John Baldacci to step up his efforts to get governors, attorneys general and legislators to weigh in on federal trade policy debates with an eye toward defending the ability of states to regulate in the interest of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. And count on new Democratic secretaries of state like Minnesota's Mark Ritchie and California's Debra Bowen, both of whom displaced Republican incumbents, to be in the forefront of efforts to restore the integrity of elections nationwide.
The power shift will also restore a measure of balance to the redistricting process. Republicans since 1994 have adopted a take-no-prisoners approach to the state-based work of drawing Congressional and legislative district lines, which yielded the party tremendous gains. Democrats should certainly not abuse the process in the same way. But because they'll be "at the table" in so many states going into the redistricting period that begins in 2010, it is likely that there will be more competitive districts at the federal and state levels. That will be enough to create the possibility that the Democratic gains of 2006 will mark only the first stage in a long process of party renewal.