If you know how many chambers your state legislature has and whether your state has a constitution or not, you can rest assured that you are better informed than the majority of your peers.
This is not snark — it’s fact. According to a 2018 survey by Johns Hopkins University political scientists, more than half of Americans did not know either of these two facts. (For the record: all but 1 state, Nebraska, has a bicameral legislature (Nebraska’s legislature is weird for multiple reasons); and, of course, every state has a constitution.)
The figures get drearier from there. A third of Americans can’t name their state’s governor, and fewer than 20% — barely 1 in 5 — can name their state legislators. Can you name your state senator?
Barely 1 in 5 Americans know who represents them in their state legislature.
It’s easy, but mostly wrong, to blame people for this sad state of affairs. The “dumb American” stereotype is a cheap shot that ignores why most people don’t know anything about this stuff. It’s not because they’re lazy or stupid — it’s because our media environment pretty much ignores state government. The consolidation of news media into an ever-smaller number of corporate conglomerates and the winner-take-all nature of online news, where the New York Times and Washington Post thrive but local news is starves, also contribute. Unless people invest real time and energy into researching this stuff, state politics will barely ever show up on your radar.
But here’s the thing: your state government matters. Bigly, you might say. In fact, for most people at most times, your state legislature has much more impact on your life than Congress does. Legislatures have a whole lot more power than local governments but are still much closer — and more accountable — to voters than the feds. State legislatures are one of the most effective places where voters can demand progressive policy change that they can actually see and feel. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, the opposite is true too.
And right now, most state legislatures are in the wrong hands. We need to change that.
How your legislature affects you
The list of Big, Important Stuff that depends largely or entirely on your state legislature is far too long to name, but some big ones bear calling out:
- Virtually all of the mechanics of our elections — how people register to vote, as well as where, when and how they are actually able to do so
- Drawing the voting districts for Congressional and state legislative seats. When Republicans draw the district maps, they make sure Democrats send fewer representatives to the legislature and Congress.
- Whether or not children in your state attend high-quality, adequately-resourced schools and the curriculum taught there
- Law enforcement and policing requirements and standards
- Basically everything about how municipal governments function — what they have purview over, how they elect their members, what and how they can tax, and much more
- Environmental standards and enforcement
- Housing policy, zoning statues and local control over what can be built and where
- Gun regulation — who can buy a gun, what kinds, and what (if any) restrictions exist on their purchase and use
- Access to abortion and reproductive health services is overwhelmingly determined by state law, not federal.
- A huge swath of federal programs and funding is implemented with very wide discretion by state governments, up to and including whether to use them at all. Case in point: Medicaid expansion (eg. the Affordable Care Act)
On almost every policy front, state legislatures more directly impact people’s lives than does the federal government. This does not mean that Congress or the federal government doesn’t matter (far from it!) — only that the overwhelming progressive focus on federal races often overlooks this incredibly important area.
A lever of influence
State legislative races are a pressure point for influence. They are, in the large majority of states, generally low-cost and low-visibility affairs. (Again — barely 1 in 5 people know who their state legislators are.) These campaigns tend to fly under the radar, particularly in presidential years, when dramatic, high-stakes elections between media brands like Hillary Clinton™️ and Donald Trump™ dominate the news media’s bandwidth. Once again — this is not to say that federal races like these are unimportant. They are critically important! But state legislatures are as well.
In fact, one of the best indicators of how important state legislatures are to the business of governing is how much Republicans have invested in them.
In the lead-up to the 2010 midterm election, the Republican Party launched the REDMAP project, which poured hundreds of millions of dollars into small state legislative and gubernatorial races, as well as into dark money ad campaigns attacking Democrats. After flipping many state legislatures, they went to work gerrymandering voting districts to make those majorities all but invincible. This is precisely what happened in North Carolina, where the Republican legislative majority made itself effectively impossible to defeat.
Part of what makes this strategy work is that most state races aren’t that expensive, at least when compared to federal ones. An average North Carolina House candidate might raise $300,000 in a campaign; a Senate candidate, around $750,000. (The figure varies by media market.) Money tends to go a long way in campaigns like these, where there is no shortage of “shovel-ready projects,” as they used to say.
Which means that even modest investments have outsized, and long-lasting, payoffs.
Blowing up their spot
Besides the national right wing, the other group that closely follows state legislative races are special corporate interests, who are deeply attuned to how their business is affected by state governments.
We’ve written before about the undisguised corporate corruption in the North Carolina General Assembly, where 69% of corporate PAC contributions go to protecting Republicans. Duke Energy, the largest single corporate donor, offers up a trough of campaign dollars for anyone — usually Republicans — who will promise to block environmental protections.
Democratic voters are a much more diverse coalition than Republicans, and Democratic fundraising tends to be less reliant on massive bankrolling by corporate and ultra-wealthy donors. These are good things overall — but they make it more challenging to rationalize where all the money should go for maximum impact. You might say Democratic candidates have a “discoverability” problem. As we discussed before, the most daunting challenge for anyone running for the state legislature, especially as a non-incumbent, is simply: how much money can you raise? Unless it’s enough to be competitive — which is still a lot — your campaign probably won’t go anywhere.
In a world in which the media barely covers state politics at all and 4 in 5 people don’t know who their state representatives are, attracting the visibility required for adequate fundraising is doubly challenging. Which is why it really helps if you’re personally very wealthy, backed by ultra-wealthy donors, or in the pocket of corporate interests, as many Republicans are.
Meanwhile, nationally visible political brand names — think failed presidential candidates, AOC or very long-shot Senate candidates in deep red states — keep fundraising like crazy. However much we may like these candidates and what they stand for, they do not really need donors’ money. You won’t find a bigger fan of Elizabeth Warren or AOC than me, but these candidates absolutely do not need more money.
What’s happening here is they are building war chests for influence within the Democratic caucus. If you are not a mega-donor giving a million or more to Democratic candidates in every cycle, you should consider skipping these candidates’ fundraising appeals. The candidates who really need your money — where those dollars will have the biggest progressive impact — are usually names you’ve never heard of running tough campaigns in purple or red states.
In other words — candidates like ours.