Four years ago Mark Ritchie wound up a quarter-century career as a farm and food policy activist and waded into the political fray. As a key organizer of the international fair-trade movement and a savvy legislative strategist, he might have been expected to run for Congress. Instead, he ran for Minnesota secretary of state.
Furious at the mangled recount of the Ohio presidential vote in 2004, Ritchie determined that nothing was more important than putting honest players in charge of running elections and counting votes. "All our talk about defending democracy adds up to very little if we aren’t willing to run for and win the positions that make the promise of democracy real," he says. Two years after his election, Ritchie was in the thick of the ugliest recount fight of the 2008 election cycle, bringing what the Minnesota Supreme Court would hail as a thoroughly "fair and conscientious" approach to the seven-month review that made Al Franken’s vote the sixtieth Democratic one in the Senate.
Ritchie, who is running for re-election this year, is the poster boy for an emerging understanding on the part of progressives that "down-ballot" victories are crucial. Once in office progressives in low-profile but powerful statewide legislative posts can play a definitional role in our politics by keeping elections for state and federal posts honest and fair; by working with policy-makers in Washington to implement healthcare, education and job-creation programs; and by providing models for how other states and the federal government can get social and economic policies right. Although most pundits can’t be bothered to talk about much more than the president and Congress, and most money flows to federal races, contests for state posts have always been essential. That goes double this year, when states are choosing the officials who will draw Congressional district lines nationwide.
The looming redistricting battles of 2011—when governors and other state officials and legislators will, in effect, allocate House seats in Washington—mean that the November 2 election could set the tone for federal politics for the next decade. For national Democrats, winning a big-state governorship—in California, Texas, Florida, Georgia or Ohio—could matter more than winning a Senate seat. And with eighty-seven state legislative chambers up for grabs (forty-five statehouses, forty-two state senates), there are thousands of local races that have national importance.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, who have dominated statehouse politics since 2006 (they currently control the lower houses of thirty-two legislatures, compared with sixteen for the Republicans, with one tied and one, Nebraska, nonpartisan), the party’s troubles at the national level extend to the states. "The Democrats control a majority of the governors’ offices and state senates and houses at a time when a severe national recession and state fiscal crises are pushing voters into an angry, anti-incumbent mood," explains Governing magazine analyst Louis Jacobson. "Polls typically show Republicans and Republican-leaning voters more energized to vote than their Democratic counterparts, undercutting Democratic hopes in almost every state."