Primary season is a bit like Thunderdome: Ultimately, only one person emerges—a disappointment for every political activist and social media junkie whose favored candidate isn’t that person. Already there’s been plenty of disappointment this season. By Wednesday morning, some more will be added, as the results from Super Tuesday send one or two of the remaining candidates to the showers.
If you’ve enthusiastically worked in the past, paid or unpaid, for a losing candidate—presidential or otherwise—whose election you felt would have made an important difference in your city or the nation, you know that disappointed feeling all too well. If you’ve been actively involved for a few election cycles and never experienced that feeling even once, you obviously lead a charmed life. Most of us aren’t so lucky. Maybe you should sell amulets.
Disappointment always requires processing, the speed of which is individual. For some, the process leads to a washing of hands when it comes to electoral politics, at least for a period. For most, it’s more a matter of diminished enthusiasm. The eagerness and passion for campaigning that comes with being inspired by a candidate’s solidity and ideas, that all-important oomph, isn’t easily transferred to another candidate when the one you were really behind leaves the field. That’s understandable. Inevitable.
Sure, most of the disappointed will buck up and soldier on, but with less of a spring in their step. With the high stakes this year especially, however, we need all the eagerness and passion we can muster, whoever the candidate is who finally emerges to accept the nomination at the party convention this summer. Lukewarm won’t cut it. Bitterness definitely won’t. So how does that enthusiasm get restored among the people for whom the presidential candidate is a disappointment?
I recommend expanding your horizons to those who haven’t already done so. There are literally thousands of elected positions in the United States: city councils, county councils, sheriffs, state legislators, district attorneys, attorneys general, governors, and, of course, representatives and senators. Every Democrat who runs for those offices, particularly those who are challengers, needs volunteers. Serious candidates running for the House or Senate, or for governorships and other statewide offices, usually have little trouble getting ample volunteer help. But the farther down-ballot candidates are, the fewer volunteers they can count on. And most have a shoestring budget, if that, which is too bad, especially in the case of state legislatures—especially since there are some terrific candidates who don’t make it into office for lack of enough eager volunteers.
So, with the hope of restoring some of the election enthusiasm already lost when favored candidates have departed, and that will be lost in a couple of days, please indulge me while I repeat a recommendation I made in September:
Whoever you support for president, whoever is your choice for the U.S. Senate and House, help build a stronger and more progressive Democratic Party bench by “adopting” and volunteering in the campaign of a state legislative candidate in your or a nearby district.
[There’s] a crucial battlefield that gets all too little attention, from the media, from the national party, from donors, and from most grassroots activists who focus their attention on those candidates further up the ballot. It’s the state legislatures. You know, the bodies that, with a few exceptions redraw the boundaries of political districts, often with outrageous gerrymanders, pass laws about drugs, abortion, health care, guns, transportation, energy, environment, education, and a multitude of other matters that affect citizens on a daily basis.
Despite the impact they have, for most people the candidates for and incumbents in state legislatures are just down-ballot names that they may be encountering for the first time and know nothing about. And in most states, most grassroots Democratic activists don’t pay much mind to these actual and would-be legislators. This hurts.
Here’s why: There are 1,972 state senators and 5,411 state representatives. Of the 99 state legislative bodies (Nebraska has a single house), 61 are now in the hands of Republicans, just 37 in the hands of Democrats, within a power-sharing arrangement. Because of the enthusiasm engendered among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in the 2018 midterm election, that marked a significant improvement over the previous skew of 67 and 32.
Those successes ought to spark even more enthusiasm in the coming election when Democrats have the opportunity to increase their margins in legislatures where they are already in charge, win majorities in states that now have Republicans in charge, and reduce Republican margins where outright Democratic victory isn’t possible.
But we need to up our game if we’re to take full advantage of the opposition to Trump and the extremist agenda of the Republican Party to maximize our victories come November, less than 15 months from now. Neglecting state legislative races is no way to do that. […]
We must not let a year in which that swaggering Il Dunce being such a good motivator for Democrats be wasted at the state legislative level.
It would be great if we could get Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg to adopt a bunch of state legislative candidates and match the $600 million-$700 million the two of them have spent on ads for their presidential campaigns in donations to state legislative races where such funding might make a big difference in the outcome. Overturning or weakening Republican majorities is even more crucial in a census year. Gerrymandering is killing us policywise at the state level. But we can’t depend on these rich knights with their own agendas to make this happen. It’s up to us.
Given the stakes, and given the potential for progressive innovation at the state level—as, for instance, we have seen in climate-friendly policies—generating enthusiasm for and talking up Democratic legislative candidates should come easily even to activists who are the most disappointed by the choice of a presidential nominee, whoever that turns out to be.