Invisible in the blue wave are candidates you haven’t heard about yet. They won’t be flying to Washington every week. Most won’t make national headlines, and won’t be running for President in 2020. In some states, they’ll make as little as $6,000 per year, juggling their responsibilities as state legislators alongside their existing jobs—as teachers, social workers, lawyers, and nurses.
But they’re the best-kept secret of our democracy. State legislators wield power not just over people’s lives—from access to health care to whether their employers can legally discriminate against them—but over the rules of American politics.
They will pass the laws that decide who gets to vote in 2020. They will draw the lines that compose Congress through 2030. And right now, many too few of them are Democrats.
How did we get here?
Republicans had seen the writing on the wall since the 1990s. Their base was aging; their presidential candidates were losing the popular vote.
To win, they would have to change the rules.
So after an embarrassing midterm defeat in 2006 and President Obama’s election in 2008, Republican operatives didn’t miss a beat. They identified a dozen states where they could gain majorities and redraw district lines after the 2010 Census—which would entrench their power in both Congress and their own state legislative bodies (that’s right, in dozens of states, legislators draw their own district lines).
Karl Rove laid out the plan quite plainly in the Wall Street Journal: “He who controls redistricting controls Congress.” They went on to do just that, sweeping the 2010 midterms—winning not just a majority in Congress, but over 700 state legislative seats across the country.
The kicker is that Republicans won these states for a bargain. State legislative races are dirt-cheap, averaging around $150,000 a piece (compared to $1 million for the average U.S. House race and $10 million for the average U.S. Senate race). Citizens United had just opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending—but they hardly needed this to win. With $30 million, the Republican State Legislative Committee implemented REDMAP, flipping 22 state chambers and 12 governor’s seats in a single election cycle, gaining trifectas, or unified control of the state legislature and governor’s mansion, in 11 states.
Power in the states gave Republicans keys to the kingdom: control over how districts are drawn and elections are run. In North Carolina, the maps were so skewed that Democratic Congressional candidates won 47% of the vote—but only 23% of the seats. In Wisconsin, they implemented a strict voter ID law that disproportionately affected the state’s communities of color—and may have kept 300,000 people from voting in 2016, in a state Trump won by 22,000 votes.
With control over the system, they came for every other right. Stand Your Ground laws—the kind that kept George Zimmerman out of trouble after he murdered Trayvon Martin—started in Florida in 2005 and have now spread to 33 states. 20-week abortion bans, unheard of before 2009, started in Nebraska and are now law in 21 states. Twenty-seven states have decimated unions with so-called “right-to-work” laws—and because GOP-controlled legislatures don’t protect workers, citizens have to fight to get labor rights on the ballot, as they successfully did in Missouri this year.
This is the Republican playbook. Outspend Dems where they aren’t looking; change the rules to secure their advantage; test, pass, and scale ultra-conservative legislation. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Where Democrats have held onto power in the states, we’ve seen the opposite effect: progressive majorities pass legislation advancing civil and economic rights. Take California, which—in the face of an administration that literally separates children from their parents and keeps them in cages—passed the California Values Act, which prevents state and local resources from being used to carry out mass deportations.
These aren’t just California values. Across the country, voters are making their voices heard against their states’ ultra-conservative policies. In Arizona, students and parents joined teachers on strike as they brought attention to the state’s pitifully low teacher compensation. In Missouri, citizens voted overwhelming to block the state’s right-to-work law by ballot initiative this past August.
When a legislature actually represents its citizens’ interests, those citizens don’t have to resort to strikes and ballot measures to get policies passed. They can actually use the electoral system as it was intended: Vote in representatives who represent their interests.
This is exactly what happened in Virginia, where, in 2017, 15 candidates flipped seats in the House of Delegates (a 115-year anomaly). All of these candidates campaigned on Medicaid expansion. So even though Democrats came up just one seat shy of taking control of the body, the House of Delegates was still able to expand Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians. Democrats and Republicans alike had seen the writing on the wall: to keep their jobs, they needed to vote in the interest of their constituents.
Of course, legislators will only fear losing their seats if the system isn’t rigged in their favor. Which provides yet another reason why focusing on state governments will help save our democracy: we can undo the system of partisan gerrymandering that locks Republicans into power.
If redistricting remains in the hands of our state governments, over 1,000 of the legislators we elect this year will be in office in 2021 to draw new congressional and state maps. This year is truly the election that decides all future elections.
What you can do
Katie Muth is one of the candidates who, once elected, will be in the position of approving district maps for the next decade. She’s running for Pennsylvania’s State Senate in a district that swung from voting for Romney in 2012 to Clinton in 2016—but that her Republican opponent has held since 2002. Muth is running her campaign the way she wants Harrisburg to be run: for people, not corporate interests. Even though she’s a working-class candidate who can’t rely on deep pockets to fund her own campaign, she’s refusing corporate PAC dollars.
When Katie wins, one of her colleagues will be Helen Tai, a state representative in Pennsylvania who won a special election by just 96 votes in May. Since joining the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Helen has worked tirelessly to increase public-education funding, introduce gun-reform bills, and hold public hearings to identify ways for lawmakers to end workplace sexual harassment. She’s also a vocal proponent of redistricting reform, and pledges to use her platform as a state legislator to make our democratic system fairer.
Katie, Helen, and over 130 other Flippable-endorsed candidates know that we can’t afford to make the same mistake we made in 2010. So they’re running to make government more accountable to the people. But to win, they need our help.
We’ve made it easy to text voters, make phone calls, or knock on doors when it’s most convenient for you—or, if you need a little social pressure, to sign up for a Day of Action. You’ll be matched with a state campaign—because state candidates need even more support getting their names out there, and because volunteering for them gives you the highest return on your investment.
They say all politics is local, because our state policies will truly decide the outcomes of all elections. Let’s not lose sight of that this November.
Catherine Vaughan is CEO and co-founder of Flippable.