Six Years to Win Back the States

Subject: A voter approaching an election polling place station during a United States election.
Subject: A voter approaching an election polling place station during a United States election.

On April 7th, conservatives made yet another state level power grab. While Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly reelected progressive-leaning Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, they also narrowly approved a constitutional amendment to change how the state's Supreme Court appoints its chief justice. The underlying goal of this amendment was clear: to grant the Supreme Court's conservative majority the opportunity to replace Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the court's longest-serving member and a liberal-leaning justice.

Seemingly obscure measures like this are a key part of conservatives' plan to lock down long-term power by rigging systems in their favor. In Wisconsin, appointing one of Governor Scott Walker's right-wing allies on the bench to serve as chief justice would enhance conservatives' legal backstop, and thus their ability to pass extreme legislation in the coming years. In other states, conservatives have passed a wide spectrum of measures to retain their hold on power -- not the least of which include voter ID and other election laws that disenfranchise voters.

The clearest example of conservatives' state dominance -- and strategy to keep it that way -- is in the last round of redistricting. The Republican tidal wave in 2010 left the U.S. House and many legislatures fundamentally skewed for the GOP. In 2012, Democrats won the popular vote for Congress by 1.1 million votes, but the gerrymandered lines still produced a 33-seat Republican majority. And at the state level, the GOP has netted 919 legislative seats since 2010 and now has full partisan control of nearly half the states in the country. Democrats, meanwhile, have full partisan control of a mere seven states.

To put the depth of conservative power in perspective, if the next round of congressional redistricting were to begin today in states with a partisan-controlled process, Republican states would oversee lines for 193 congressional districts (45 percent of the U.S. House), while Democratic states would draw only 12 districts (3 percent of the U.S. House).

When partisan dominance can defy the popular vote and lock down years of control, it's clear this is no longer just a problem for progressives -- it's a problem for our democracy as a whole. How do progressives begin to turn the tables in this climate?

Progressives' best chance to break through the conservative firewall is a multi-front, long-term strategy to win back the states. Too often we've measured our electoral success based on winning states for the presidency or control of the U.S. Senate, while overlooking vital the contests further down the ballot. Those days are gone -- we can no longer afford to settle for lonely victories at the top of the ticket. We must fight back against conservatives' ground-up strategy with a ground-up strategy of our own.

That strategy begins by shifting our focus to the long-term. Conservatives' deeply held power won't be undone in 2016 alone. We need to think about the next elections as a six-year project to win back the states and undo conservative gerrymandering. And with two presidential elections over the next six years to drive up turnout, changing demographics that favor progressives, and the severe consequences of conservative policies taking hold, there is a very real path to victory through 2020.

Our multi-front strategy must account for every level -- and type -- of power in the states. This includes statewide offices like secretaries of state and attorneys general, elected Supreme Courts, and ballot initiatives. Key states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin have paths to victory that involve gaining legislative ground in 2016, electing governors in 2018 and retaking chambers in 2020.

America Votes and hundreds of our progressive allies are developing these six-year plans within and across states. Our goal is to identify critical opportunities to build back power in the states each year from 2015 through 2020. America Votes will help make hard-nosed assessments about trends on the ground and critical decisions on the best opportunities for us to make progress on our overall goals.

The more progressive leaders, funders and activists understand what's at stake at all levels of the ballot, and the more we collaborate our efforts, the more successful we will be by 2021. The conservative movement and its funders understand those stakes and have already taken advantage.

It's time for progressives everywhere to get serious about winning back the states.