Never Mind Congress. These Democrats Want to Win State Legislatures

6 minute read

One day in March, a few months after she announced her bid for the Texas state legislature, Ana-Maria Ramos was sitting in her ripped black leather chair in her living-room-slash-campaign-headquarters when she got a call from her friend Michelle Beckley. Beckley was also running for state representative in a neighboring Texas district: they had met when they decided to run for office and shared a hotel room during a candidate training. She told Ramos to check her email.

Ramos opened her email and saw that her bid for Texas state representative had just been endorsed by Flippable, a new national organization focused on electing more Democrats to state legislatures. The endorsement came with the first of several $1,000 donations, an insignificant sum in the post-Citizens United world of federal campaign contributions, but nothing to sneeze at in a statehouse campaign with a total budget of around $60,000. She says the endorsement brought her to tears.

“You’re constantly being told by all the allies and powers that be that you’re not doing enough,” says Ramos. “They made me feel credible, like I was a candidate on the right track.”

For Beckley, the Flippable endorsement was a crucial, early sign that her race was competitive. She says that previous Democrats running in her district typically haven’t raised more than $6,000 — her predecessor raised only $1,500. Flippable’s endorsement, access to their donor list and team of volunteer callers helped her campaign raise over $50,000.

While other new organizations like Indivisible and Swing Left are harnessing the anti-Trump fervor on the left towards helping Democrats regain control in the House of Representatives, Flippable is directing that political momentum towards flipping statehouses blue. It’s taking a page out of the Republican’s playbook: In 2010, as the GOP prepared to retake Congress, the Republicans also poured $33 million into state legislative races in order to win control of statehouses ahead of redistricting in 2011 (Karl Rove outlined the plan in a 2010 op-ed, which later evolved into a strategy called REDMAP.) Those GOP-led state legislatures drew new district maps that heavily favored Republicans, and by 2017 Republicans had complete control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion in 26 states, plus the presidency, the House and the Senate.

“Everything that makes our democracy fair or unfair all comes down to the state level,” says Catherine Vaughan, co-founder and CEO of Flippable. “If we don’t flip these statehouse and state senates, we could lose the opportunity to have a Democratic House for a decade.”

Various new political organizations have harnessed the anti-Trump energy on the left to help Democrats win elections. SwingLeft has raised money against Republican incumbents, ensuring that Democratic challengers get a windfall as soon as they win the primary. Sister District mobilizes volunteers in deep-red or deep-blue districts to help candidates win races in swingier districts. RunForSomething recruits and trains millennial candidates to help rebuild the Democratic bench at the state and local level.

But Flippable is focused entirely on flipping statehouses: they identify the state legislatures where they can flip a chamber blue or break a Republican supermajority, then funnel resources to candidates running in winnable districts. The goal is to help Democrats take back state legislatures both in November and in 2020 to ensure fair redistricting, expand voting rights, and turn the tide on issues like reproductive rights and gun safety where Democrats are facing bleak odds in Congress and on the Supreme Court.

“People are focused on a single cycle, but we’re playing the long game,” says Vaughan. “We need to win enough statehouses between now and 2020 to have fair voting rules and fair redistricting.”

The much-anticipated Blue Wave has already hit the Democratic campaign coffers, with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraising the Republican one and at least 73 Democratic challengers raising more money than their Republican incumbents. But the party seems to be belatedly realizing the importance of investing in downballot races. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has doubled its fundraising since 2016, and is planning to pour $35 million into flipping state legislature seats, according to a spokeswoman. And of former President Barack Obama’s 81 midterm endorsements announced so far, 40 have been for State House and State Senate seats.

Flippable is basically augmenting the work of the DLCC, but with more of a startup mentality. It uses algorithms to determine which races to target, invests in candidates before their primary and then help them with digital advertising and social media. Their pitch is that it will do the work to find the races that are the best investment, to help donors get the most bang for their buck: state legislative races cost roughly $100,000-$150,000, while federal House and Senate races usually cost millions.

“State legislatures are a bargain,” says David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, which details the Republican plan in 2010. “You can jump into a state and take control of a chamber for a few hundred thousand dollars.” He notes that state legislative seats are still cheaper than federal seats, but now much more expensive than they were when Republicans swept statehouses in 2010.

And early money from groups like Flippable can make a big difference to state candidates running campaigns fueled by small donations. Jenn O’Mara, running for state legislature in Pennsylvania, says she’s noticed donations coming to her through ActBlue that she suspects are tied to her Flippable endorsement. Katie Muth, an athletic trainer running for Pennsylvania State Senate, was until recently working full time while running for office, which meant that she and her husband spent the first few months of her campaign tag-teaming on calls to donors: he would make fundraising calls while she was at basketball practice. “My average donation is $50.70,” says Muth. “For them to write a $5,000 check to me this early on, that’s a big deal.”

Flippable is also partnering with groups like Run For Something to give more support to downballot candidates. Run For Something focuses on recruiting and training young exciting candidates, while Flippable helps fund them. So far they’ve co-endorsed 10 candidates, including Muth and O’Mara, and planning on collaborating more.

“We know that winning the House in 2018 is a temporary fix to what becomes a permanent problem if we don’t win back state legislatures,” says Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something. “A little bit of effort can make a big impact.”

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