State Governors and Legislatures the Key to Democratic Comeback Odds
With the looming threat of a hypothetical one-party authoritarian state led by either Donald Trump or Mike Pence in the White House, Democrats across the country are understandably hungry to reclaim power in 2020, if not in 2018. Additionally, many of the gubernatorial victors in November 2018 shall wield significant veto power when it comes time for congressional redistricting, following the 2020 Census. So there’s no question that the Democrats are eager to take back the driver’s seat. The question is: how do they do it?
Some factions say that the Democratic Party must embrace identity politics, while others insist they should move away from it. Some claim that it’s a matter of implementing better “messaging,” and the party’s policies themselves are just fine. Yet others recommend embracing an economic message in lieu of social justice, along with retooling the platform to emphasize income inequality. Still others maintain that the party should move slightly leftward or slightly rightward – and be willing to follow the lead of either the Bernie Sanders wing or the Hillary Clinton wing of the party (depending on whom you favored, last year).
My position is that all of these schools-of-thought are wrong. They are simplistic, overly-reductionist, exclusionary paths for the Democratic Party to theoretically follow. I believe that the odds of a Democratic comeback in 2018 or 2020 don’t hinge upon “centrism” or “progressivism” per se – instead, it should be about speaking to the American people authentically…while addressing the “unglamorous”-yet-pivotal issues that affect our collective future. Remember, Democrats – town hall meetings for listening and info-gathering can be among your best tools!
The same concept applies to any of the roughly one-dozen major contenders whom I’ve evaluated for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 – not only in terms of their approaches on the campaign trail, but how each of them would govern once in the White House. But that General Election is more than three years away…so let’s focus on the 2018 midterms, first.
The Talking Heads love to lament about how “insurmountable” the 2018 midterm map appears to be for the Democrats. They talk about all of the gerrymandered seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as how there are twenty-five Senate Democrats up for reelection compared to only eight Senate Republicans.
Yes, those are the raw numbers for the U.S. Senate. But we need to look past those statistics, and put them into context. Out of those eight Republicans, six of them – John Barrasso, Bob Corker, Ted Cruz, Deb Fischer, Orrin Hatch, and Roger Wicker – are considered “safe” for reelection. Out of their twenty-five Democratic counterparts, fifteen of them – Maria Cantwell, Ben Cardin, Tom Carper, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobuchar, Bob Menendez, Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders (who caucuses with the Democrats), Debbie Stabenow, Elizabeth Warren, and Sheldon Whitehouse – are also considered “safe,” at this point in time. Individual races can certainly change between now and November 2018 (including any retirements that turn a contest into an open-seat race), but that’s where things stand right now.
Next, we turn to the remaining twelve U.S. Senators. It’s true that nine of those twelve Senate seats are held by Democrats, with Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana obviously being the most vulnerable. From there, the other seven successively diminish in terms of their vulnerability: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Bill Nelson of Florida.
There’s also the “wild card” race in Maine, where incumbent Angus King Jr. identifies as an Independent but caucuses with the Democrats. Even if King faces a two-front battle from both a Republican and a Democrat, Maine’s recently-approved ranked-choice voting system increases the odds that either King or a Democratic opponent of his will retain the seat – especially if the Republican on the ballot is an outright extremist, such as Maine Governor Paul LePage.
So, yes, even those more acute numbers seem to favor the Republicans – who have only two potentially-vulnerable Senate incumbents in Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona (both of whom could easily perish in the midst of a massive anti-Trump “wave”). What I predict will happen is that the U.S. Senate will end up being a “wash” or a “break-even” scenario, since even under the most generous circumstances (such as a Democratic upset in either Texas or Tennessee), the Democratic Party would still fall one seat short of reclaiming the Senate majority. Over in the U.S. House, Democrats will probably make some gains – even if they do miss the net gain of 24 seats needed to recapture the Speaker’s chair. The 2020 cycle is when the Democratic Party has the greater potential to make tremendous downticket gains.
Yet, the Talking Heads in the “mainstream media” will most likely try to paint a Democratic “break-even” scenario in 2018 as a loss or setback. The narrative will be, “Why couldn’t Democrats get their act together and ride the wave of anger against Trump to take back all of Congress?” I suggest the Democrats ignore such putrid punditry, and place a lot of their emphasis on winning back Governors’ Mansions. If the Democratic candidates hammer away on the most crucial issues, such momentum should spill over into the more localized downticket races, as well.
Remember the post-9/11 “mini-wave” that shored up George W. Bush’s majorities in Congress, back during the 2002 midterms? What many junkyard historians tend to forget is how, during that same midterm, Democrats really managed to clean up when it came to statehouses. At the gubernatorial level, the Democratic Party was able to flip a lot of unexpected seats throughout the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Eastern Seaboard. It was only due to the liberal-to-moderate ideologies of many Republican gubernatorial incumbents (and challengers) that the GOP was able to keep almost as many gubernatorial seats in their column – resulting in an overall net gain of two, in favor of Democratic Governors. This occurred a good seven years before the rise of the Tea Party, mind you. For 2018, Republican-held Governors’ Mansions in New Mexico, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Arizona and even Tennessee are all ripe for the picking.
You’re probably thinking to yourself: so, smartypants, how do we turn the blueprint for a Democratic comeback in 2018 into a reality? I truly believe it will happen if Democratic gubernatorial challengers (and the Democrats’ vulnerable Senate incumbents) focus on integrating this core eight-point platform of mine into their individual campaigns. Spend enough money for name recognition – and then fuse together a synergistic combination of message and policy at the local and state levels.
Here are these eight core political areas that have been blatantly ignored by the current Republican “leadership,” so-called “mainstream media” coverage, and even Democratic majorities who’ve governed in the past. Embrace them, and I guarantee you that a Democratic comeback will happen much sooner than later.
With the honeybee population endangered worldwide, the production of fruits and vegetables is threatened everywhere. I maintain that the only way to prevent an eventual collapse of our global food supply is by taking steps toward the “mainstreaming” of indoor agriculture. The technology may not be 100% realistic, yet; but, unless we begin implementing serious policy changes that will get us there incrementally, it never will be. And that would result in our collective downfall.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean we turn our backs on traditional outdoor agriculture by “getting rid of it” altogether. What I’m proposing is that the Democrats boldly call for more scientific research into hydroponics, aquaponics, and automated pollination (see increased research into “robo-bees”) – with the goal of making our agricultural sectors more cost-effective and energy-efficient. Tax incentives. Public-private partnerships. Federal subsidization of green technology for farmers. It will make the American economy less dependant on foreign crop imports. It could create millions of new jobs related to indoor farming. And it should allow rural, suburban, and urban forms of agriculture to flourish with infrastructural improvements in the face of record drought (particularly on the West Coast).
Any politician who jumps on this bandwagon would reap the benefits of it, electorally.
The water protectors at Standing Rock had it right. Water is life. It isn’t a glamorous issue…but with climate change rapidly heating arid and desert regions, we risk seeing our lakes and rivers dried up right before our eyes. As I wrote last year, mass-migration simply isn’t a feasible option. We must desalinate the water from our oceans (as Israel successfully did with its SOREK facility) – but, also, find better large-scale mechanisms for capturing rain and stormwater.
Members of the House and Senate need to start a bipartisan Congressional Water Sustainability Caucus to construct solutions for conserving, recycling, and rechanneling our nation’s water supply. That also means shoring up hazardous infrastructure – such as the Enbridge Line #5, a crude oil pipeline that connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan along the Straits of Mackinac. We’ve already seen the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) show signs of leakage…which is exactly the scenario about which us anti-DAPL folks tried to warn everyone.
No one wants their drinking water filled with sludge or toxins. I guarantee that any Democrat who puts forth a blueprint to replenish water collection/storage will be generously rewarded by voters in their states or districts.
Democrats must rally voters across ideological lines to fight against voter suppression. That means demanding verifiable paper trails for all electronic touchscreen voting machines…and letting every voter know that she or he has the right to demand a paper ballot and a receipt (to mitigate the possibility of electronic vote-flipping). In those states with Photo ID laws for voters, assemble checklists with which all eligible voters should arm themselves so they won’t get turned away at the polls. Above all else, vocally call out Donald Trump’s so-called Commission on Election Integrity (led by voter suppressor extraordinaire Kris Kobach) as a Trojan horse being used to further erode the rights of eligible voters.
But the concept of “free and fair elections” also needs to transcend merely fighting the current injustices perpetuated upon voters. We must go beyond fixing what isn’t working and focus on what should work better. That means relaxing ballot access laws so that candidates outside of the two-party system have an easier time actually getting on the ballot. Yes, this includes the so-called “spoiler” third-party candidates, too – if Democratic candidates truly have the superior policies, then they shouldn’t feel threatened by a possibility of losing votes to “spoilers.”
Furthermore, it means pushing legislation at the state level that will clearly define “peddling influence” and “distorting the political process” (as a way of mitigating the effects of Citizens United, until we can get a Constitutional Amendment to overturn it). And it means calling for a multipartisan commission that would have federal veto power over the gerrymandering bolstered by state legislatures. We are only a few right-wing Governors’ Mansions away from a theocratic coalition gaining the power to amend the U.S. Constitution. Whether you supported Hillary or Bernie or someone else…only a tiny sliver of the American populace actually wants to see that happen.
Some people claim that we should be placing social issues on the backburner in order to refocus on economic equality and international diplomacy. I retort that it isn’t an either/or scenario: in order for a Democratic comeback to be attainable, activists need to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Nowhere is this more pronounced than when it comes to the top three social issues in our country: race, sexuality, and abortion.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been unfairly demonized. As an alternative, I propose that those of us who support its goals seek to humanize this movement for the general public – highlighting how police brutality and other forms of systemic racism have pervasive, deadly consequences for people of color. Then, couple that dialogue with public policy initiatives. At the same time, other multiethnic coalitions (such as the #IdleNoMore movement) should be given a prominent seat at the table so that candidates will bring together improved policy platforms. Rather than assigning “group blame” for racial injustice, politicians and activists must clearly articulate why and how specific legislative proposals promoting racial equality are beneficial for society as a whole.
Two years ago, the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Right-wing fringe groups obviously want to reverse that decision. The good news is that, twelve years after the “gay-baiting” of the 2004 presidential election, we’ve finally advanced to a point where a clear majority of Americans (regardless of their political affiliations) support full marriage equality for same-sex couples. As a bare minimum, Democratic candidates running for any office should support the maintenance of Obergefell. In addition, when there are newer issues affecting the LGBT community – such as transgender Americans who face violence and harassment, or sex education curriculums relevant to teens who have same-sex attractions – a blueprint of national goals for making our communities safe and inclusive should be embraced; individual Democratic candidates still can specify how to achieve that at the local level.
A similar principle applies to reproductive freedoms. As with Obergefell, keeping Roe v. Wade intact should be the bare minimum that any public servant endorses. In addition, when people disagree about late-term abortions, medical exceptions protecting the health of the woman should always be paramount (this is particularly critical when the Dilation & Extraction procedure is debated). One possibility could be to find a way to create stricter standards for “fungible funds” while additionally stipulating that all non-abortive health services provided by Planned Parenthood must be robustly funded at the federal level.
FAIR TRADE & CONSUMER PROTECTION
A majority of politicians claim to support “insourcing” via the “Made in America” movement. But that’s easy for anyone to state. Which actions and policy initiatives does a politician envelop in order to achieve better-quality, more-affordable American goods and services?
Rather than cutting corporate tax rates across-the-board, why not offer lower tax rates to companies that specifically bring targeted percentages of jobs back to the United States? If you don’t keep those jobs stateside, you will lose your tax break. Conservatives will argue that this would be an example of the government “picking winners and losers.” What they fail to realize is that, without consumer-friendly changes being made to trade and manufacturing, we will all end up as “losers” with absolutely no “winners.” The empty platitudes of “competition” and “the free market” don’t mean very much if barely anyone can afford the essentials for everyday living (let alone luxuries purchased with disposable income).
But we need to go further. Americans have the right to know what is in our food – where it comes from, where it’s processed, and whether it’s genetically-modified. Not only should “Country-of-Origin” Labeling be reinstated…Democrats should collectively push for “Country-of-Processing” Labeling, as well. Why should the country in which foodstuffs or grocery items are cleaned and packaged become information that’s legally hidden from consumers? Other countries with subpar health inspection or safety standards shouldn’t be allowed to hold the American economy hostage through quid-pro-quo deals. What about the umpteen harmful chemicals that can be found in so many cosmetics, antiperspirants, and cleaners?
Empowering citizens to make healthier choices insofar as groceries and grooming products will do wonders for our collective long-term health. In turn, this lowers health care costs and contributes to the goal of eradicating poverty.
An open and accessible Internet enables the American people to fully chart our own course in terms of driving democracy. Allowing Internet Service Providers to slow down connection speeds based on a consumer’s relative affluence and income will stymie overall economic growth. By not allowing every American to utilize the Information Superhighway to its fullest extent for legal purposes, we’ll be creating a new “digital divide” reminiscent of the Eloi and the Morlocks.
The Democratic Party needs to come together and hold FCC chairman Ajit Varadaraj Pai accountable for any attempts to bastardize the Internet into some exclusive tool for the wealthy and elite. When opponents of net neutrality squawk about how it hinders “competition” or “innovation” – just remind them that we all can collaborate to specifically incentivize broadband investment for underserved areas. Other efforts could be made to exempt broadband service providers from a plethora of regressive new fees and taxes under the Universal Service Fund.
Even those who don’t say it out loud are harboring a distinct fear embedded within their subconscious: none of us wants to see the United States backslide into some new iteration of “the Great Recession.” Or, worse – complete economic collapse. The consequences would be unspeakable…thus, not a lot of people (except for survivalists and gold-peddlers) speak these words aloud.
The best way to find a workable medium between Authoritarian-Communism or Libertarian-Dystopia is to encourage forward-thinking investments on the part of Corporate America. Investments in our future. Investments in us. For example, budgetary discussions about new infrastructure rarely ever delve into projects that would have widespread community benefits, such as greenhouses or aquatic centers.
And yes, Elizabeth Warren is correct: Wall Street is a big part of the problem. This doesn’t mean the elimination of competition or the placement of all banks under state control. It doesn’t rule out being “pro-business” or encouraging competition. On the contrary: regulating derivatives, easing student loan debt, moderating home ownership zeal, freezing credit default swaps, incentivizing mass transit, limiting leverage ratios, and reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act will result in economic prosperity. Thus, more Americans will have more disposable income. Thus, a greater “spider web” for competition and synergy would be created. Thus, consumers have more choices, and there’ll be more diversity that creates better jobs.
I agree that Merrick Garland should have been given a fair up-or-down hearing/vote from the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, following Antonin Scalia’s death. I’m not sure whether I would have directly voted for or against Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation – although I myself certainly would have nominated someone else who was more moderate than him. But, ultimately, replacing Scalia with Gorsuch didn’t alter the U.S. Supreme Court’s ideological balance.
This is why I opposed filibustering Gorsuch. The most strategic time for Democrats to have mounted a filibuster would have been if Trump was tasked with filling a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, or Anthony Kennedy vacancy. Replacing any of the three of them with a hard-line conservative is what could significantly shift the balance of the Court. Plus, it could have been used as a timelier “wedge issue” against Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn closer to the 2020 election.
So, we are where we are, right now. No one knows exactly what will happen to Kennedy, Ginsburg, or Breyer over the course of the next three years. But if any of them end up vacating the Court – and then Trump or Pence attempt to replace them with a Robert Bork clone, Democrats should campaign for newfound Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress plus a Democratic president in conjunction with the #TwoMoreRobes movement.
What does #TwoMoreRobes mean, you might ask? Simply put, it would be a promise to the American people that, if a Democratic president is elected alongside a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, Congress would vote to add two new slots to the Supreme Court – bringing its overall total from nine seats to eleven. There is no constitutional requirement that nine-and-only-nine justices must serve on SCOTUS…and this would counteract any “court-packing” that the Far Right attempts to manipulate in its favor. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to push for a variation of this during the 1930s; while FDR’s attempts were unsuccessful, the rise of rabid religious fundamentalism within today’s Republican Party might make this become a necessary evil for modern-day Democrats, post-2020.
A WAY FORWARD
The refinement of both messaging and policy need to undergo equal attention, if there’s going to be any chance of a Democratic comeback in 2018 or 2020. Party leaders need to acknowledge that copious potential voters exist outside of the current two-party system – and many existing voters dislike the vile partisanship that plagues our current landscape. You can whine all you want about Millennials or recent high school graduates not showing up on Election Day – but have you ever stopped to consider how, maybe if the Democratic Party’s platform offered up something new and collaborative, a lot more of these nonvoters might actually come out to help you wrest control away from the GOP and its donors?
Call out Trump and rake him over the coals for all of his blunders and sins – absolutely! But I would argue that the real delectable recipe for a Democratic comeback can be served up when honing in on ignored issues that are subconsciously held sacred by Americans of all ideological stripes: food safety, clean water, fair elections, judicial moderation, online liberty, human decency, price stability, and economic innovation.
These topic areas are ones that we often take for granted…so the “mainstream media” chooses to avoid focusing on them. A failure to inject them into the national dialogue would be the perfect way for the Democratic Party to keep itself stuck in a head-banging minority status for the foreseeable future.
But if liberals and progressives articulate some solid plans to protect everyone’s food, water, financial cohesion, and voting rights – a Democratic comeback will be imminent. And the Talking Heads of TV news will be unable to continue ignoring the grassroots.
Featured image by Richard Anderson via Flickr.