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July 13, 2014 3:00 PM The statehouse “laboratories of democracy” are more important than ever

By David Atkins

Calling the statehouses “laboratories of democracy” per Justice Brandeis’ famous adage is often seen as trite and outdated considering the size and power of the federal government. But rarely in modern American politics has the notion been as relevant as it is today.

The 113th Congress seems set to pass fewer laws than any in recent history, almost entirely due to total obstruction by the Republican House. That, of course, reduces the opportunities to solve problems at the federal level. But the gridlock also reduces the ability of political parties to provide contrasts to their voters, particularly when the journalistic establishment tends to gloss over the reasons for Congressional dysfunction and the issues involved, preferring to simply throw a pox on both houses for failing to overcome “partisan disagreement.”

That dynamic means that it has never been more important for both Republicans and Democrats to enact desired policy changes at a state-by-state level. Politically, that also allows the parties point to the states they control as beacons of success, assuming their policies demonstrate positive outcomes.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that control of state legislatures has dramatic impact on Congress in redistricting battles.

That’s why it’s disturbing to read that Democrats, apparently failing to learn the lessons of 2010, are still far behind in their focus on the governor and legislature fights:

Democratic governors are plainly irritated that some of the country’s biggest liberal contributors are more focused on Washington elections when state races have become so pivotal in shaping policy. The largest individual donor to the Democratic Governors Association through March was Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist, who gave $250,000 to the group late last year. (Some liberal donors have contributed more heavily to groups based in their own states.)
It is not only in governors’ races where Republicans are building an advantage: The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based group that supports the party’s candidates for state offices, is also well ahead of its 2010 fund-raising pace.
Matt Walter, the committee’s president, said it had raised more than $24 million through June, close to twice as much as it had raised by the same point in the 2010 election cycle, when his party took control of 21 state legislative bodies.

In California the Democratic Party took control of the statehouse with 2/3 supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate in 2012, as well as every state constitutional office. In one fell swoop, years of poor economic and budget news turned almost instantly rosy as Democrats came together to pass competent budgets and fund needed priorities. By discarding Republican obstruction Democrats were able to turn California from a national laughingstock into a nearly overnight success story.

Meanwhile, Colorado’s success in marijuana legalization is serving as a model for states across the nation to question their own laws on the topic.

As long as current Congressional district boundaries remain in place, the House is going to be a difficult place to get anything done. The Senate may well bounce back and forth between the 2014 and 2016 elections, possibly even 2018 as well. Legislative gridlock seems a near certainty until at least 2020 if not 2022 when the new census establishes new partisan district lines.

Democrats and their donors would be well advised to shift a substantial amount of their focus to winning statehouse battles, helping people in the states where it’s possible to help, and proving the worth of progressive policies to serve as an example for voters in the battlegrounds.

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