The Primaries Matter, but Don’t Forget the Bench


As we prepare to stare into the mouth of the (91% white) beast, I continue to have conversations with progressive people who have major qualms with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or both. Not just surface-level qualms, either, but deep substantive concerns with major parts of their record or their proposals.

I’ve had a number of conversations about things like his handling of the Joe Rogan endorsement, her DNA test, his insistence on treating every question as a class question first, her attempted tightrope-walking on healthcare, his unyielding economic protectionism, the rest of her foreign policy…all of these, I’d argue, are major issues that people have a right to be concerned about.

Obviously, there is only one response to these folks, regardless of who they prefer or who you prefer:

“These are major problems. We need to do better in the future in terms of who we can put forward not only at the presidential level, but also in Congress.”

There’s only one way to fix this in the long run, and that’s caring as much about who we put forward down the ballot as at the top.

Do you know that there are two safely blue House seats where progressive women are running against conservative, pro-life Democratic incumbents? Marie Newman and Jessica Cisneros have been placed at a disadvantage because the DCCC is blacklisting vendors who work with primary challengers such as them. I am donating to them this evening. You should consider doing the same.

Or consider the open seat in NY-17, a seat held for decades by Nita Lowey, that is safely blue and includes a number of candidates from all across the ideological spectrum. Mondaire Jones was recently endorsed by Warren, but there are 15 candidates in the race at the moment and it might be worth using the candidates’ platforms as a way to figure out what policies you care the most about.

But the fight goes even lower than that. Of the 47 Democrats who are currently in the Senate (counting both Bernie and Angus King), 22 of them started their careers in the state legislature, with another 9 starting out as local elected officials. Very few actually started out with runs for Congress like the three above.

And as much as that path seems like it belongs to the establishment, even reasonably lefty caucus members like Ed Markey, Tammy Baldwin, and Sherrod Brown were state legislators first. (Bernie, of course, was mayor of Burlington first, one of the nine above.)

Democrats got absolutely blasted at the state legislative level in 2010, 2014, and 2016. 2018 was a very good recovery year, admittedly. But despite that, Republicans still maintain unified control over 29 state legislatures out of 50 (including Nebraska, which is unicameral). Indeed, despite about 80% of state legislative seats being up in 2018, and despite the major gains Democrats made, Republicans still control 400 more state legislative seats than Democrats (roughly 3850 to 3450).

Do you know who your state representative is? Your state senator? (Now that I’ve moved, I actually don’t, and I’m looking it up after I finish writing this.)

How do you think your state senator, somebody who probably receives very few constituent calls on a daily basis, will react to a call from you as compared to your U.S. senator? I have plenty of stories of friends who had actual conversations with local or state elected officials that you could never possibly imagine with a congressperson.

We are in desperate need of a bench, but we are the only ones who can build it. I spent some time after the 2016 election helping out with Flippable, an important organization that focuses on state legislative races and has helped spotlight opportunities to retake control of state legislatures. But Flippable’s reach is limited: their goal is to provide support post-primary. Some of the research I did for them demonstrates the need for effective candidate recruitment, which has to happen so much earlier.

That means us. It may mean you specifically. But even if it doesn’t, it probably means somebody you know, somebody who you’ve met, somebody who cares. Sherrod Brown was encouraged to run for his first state legislative seat at the age of 21, and won. If he’s qualified, you are qualified.

Those are the races where progressives can engage in the retail politics that will shift attitudes. Those are the races that will prepare progressives for runs at larger offices. Those are the races, maybe most importantly, that will drive policy in areas where the federal government does not play a large role, including the two issues I care most about: criminal justice and education.

This isn’t just a means to an end, although I often fall into that line of thinking as well. State legislative races matter on their own terms. We should treat them like they do.

The work continues.

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