Members Only | April 1, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Refocus your energy. Use it to protect democracy and advance policy that improves lives
Don’t “chase shiny objects.”
If you’ve consumed any news media lately, you’re probably worried democracy is getting strangled by Trumpist-Republican sectarians.
Sober analyses in news outlets like NPR, Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek and many others are downright frightening.
But the bad news doesn’t end there.
Everyone should spend their money and their time as they see fit. No one is suggesting going cold turkey on federal races. But the truth is, when we are more strategic, it works.
Ron Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic last year that “though [the] proliferation of bills restricting ballot access in red states has commanded national attention, it represents just one stream in a torrent of conservative legislation poised to remake the country.”
Alarmed Democrats have been responding the ways we usually expect: by giving money and in record amounts. In 2020, with a $1.5 billion barrage of digital pleas, Democrats poured heretofore-unseen sums into federal races and outspent Republicans across the board.
The problem is our aim.
As former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper vividly describes in his book Laboratories of Autocracy, state legislatures shape all the other levers of power in our country – how we vote, who gets to vote, what the districts are and whether our votes count.
State legislatures also have a bigger role than the federal government on many of the issues that affect our day-to-day lives.
That’s to say nothing of local offices.
As Run for Something’s Amanda Litman says, they “affect people’s lives on everything from schools to business licenses to climate change.”
Yet 70 percent of local races go uncontested.
In the 2020 election, the Democratic Party spent a scant $50 million on all state legislative races across the country (local races garnered way less). They poured seven times more into winning the US House.
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Heck, they wasted almost three times more on a fruitless campaign against a single Republican senator.
It’s bad enough that they obsess over federal races while underfunding state races and overlooking local offices. They also massively overfund campaigns that are unwinnable or in the bag.
AOC raised $20 million to win … by almost 50 points?
The Times’ Ezra Klein summed it up: “Democrats chase shiny objects.”
But Jason Sattler gave a more pointed example, noting that Marjorie Taylor Greene “could marry Hunter Biden, put her pronouns on her Twitter bio and give herself a real-time abortion on Tucker Carlson’s desk while wearing a rainbow-colored N95 mask – she’d still win.”
Yet Democratic donors stampeded to give an eye-popping $5 million to her longshot challenger, double what incumbent Democrats have gotten in toss-up seats, people like Angie Craig and Jared Golden, who have a real chance and must prevail if we are to hold the House.
If Democrats want to protect American democracy and advance meaningful policy that improves lives, we need to refocus.
Fortunately, these are choices each of us can make.
First, and most important, you can concentrate more of your own giving on campaigns that a) are challenging but winnable, b) affect the balance of power and c) happen in strategic places.
It’s depressingly easy to find fitting targets. Republicans hold trifectas in 23 states, including presidential swing states, like Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire. They also hold triplexes of the officials that have the most direct power over voting – governor, attorney general, and secretary of state – in 22 states, including Florida, Ohio and Texas.
Winning back a legislative chamber could slow the rightwing assault. Closely divided bodies that could flip in 2022 include Arizona (both chambers), Georgia, (both), Michigan (House) and Pennsylvania (both).
One donation option is to give to state-based committees focusing on winning key legislative races, like the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or to state Democratic parties giving an easy online option to target swing races as in Pennsylvania.
Or you could give to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) which supports key state legislative races across the country.
If you like to curate your giving, there’s a little legwork to do (especially because primaries have not happened yet). But it’s not too much. The DLCC has a handy key-races guide you can peruse.
Political analyst Matt Bennett provides a guide to key secretary of state races we need to hold (Michigan) or flip (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada). Democrats’ candidates for them are a Google away.
Or you can keep your own eye on strategic races in flippable legislatures. In Minnesota, Republican state Senator Warren Limmer (author of the 2012 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage) won in 2020 by less than a point. In New Hampshire, state Senate District 12 has flipped five times in the last six elections. Former Democratic senator Melanie Levesque is back for a rematch.
A second way to refocus your personal action is to volunteer or run for critical local jobs. ProPublica surveyed 65 key battleground counties and found that 8,500 new Republican precinct officers had responded to Steve Bannon’s call and signed up to work the polls.
You can balance out this influx by signing up to be a poll worker through the nonprofit Power the Polls and you can get information and training through the Fair Elections Center.
Or, if you are willing to take a further step, sign up to explore becoming a candidate for local office through Run for Something, which can help find offices and even help your campaign.
Third, we can adjust our personal political media diets. Social media noise and fundraising solicitations overwhelm our senses. No less an authority than former DCCC Chairman Steve Israel says we should unsubscribe from every single campaign email list.
As Ohio-based Democratic consultant Cliff Schecter put it, “We got those wins by doing what the right does all the time, focusing on where the power was. Sometimes [the job] is more local and less glamorous, but it is every bit as important.”
Instead, we can tune our brains to more reasoned sources (I endorse the Editorial Board, as well as my own podcast), along with following people on social media who are cited in this article and who highlight the true threats and the strategic targets to focus on. (This article has linked to their Twitter accounts throughout. This is mine).
Everyone should spend their money and their time as they see fit.
No one is suggesting going cold turkey on federal races.
But the truth is, when we are more strategic, it works.
State and local-based approaches have led to critical victories for protecting democracy. As Ohio-based Democratic consultant Cliff Schecter put it, “We got those wins by doing what the right does all the time, focusing on where the power was. Sometimes [the job] is more local and less glamorous, but it is every bit as important.”
Matt Robison covers public policy and governance for the Editorial Board. The host of Beyond Politics Podcast and Great Ideas Podcast, for WKXL in Concord, NH, he lives with his family in Amherst, Mass.
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