Barrett nomination proves need for a new 50-state strategy
A man puts a sticker on an electoral map during an election watch event, Nov. 9, 2016. With the Supreme Court possibly tilting 6-3, the need for a 50-state strategy is clearer than ever. | Lee Jin-man / AP

President Nixon famously campaigned in all 50 states in his narrow loss to President Kennedy in 1960, a move that was criticized by people saying he ought to have focused on only a few of the “swing states” as presidential candidates do today. However, in the long run, this was beneficial from his point of view, as it helped build support for his party which culminated in his victories in 1968 and 1972. In the short term, a “50-state strategy” is often criticized, but it also pays dividends in the long run.

More recently, Howard Dean in 2005 developed a “50-state strategy” during his tenure as chair of the DNC. This reaped the benefits of building the Democratic Party and the 2006 mid-term victories in the U.S. House and Senate, and I would argue helped to build the state party infrastructure that helped push the margin of President Obama’s landslide 2008 victory. James Carville, the Democratic strategist made famous for his successful managing of President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, criticized Dean’s strategy, arguing the 2006 victory would have been wider without it, but it can certainly be argued that this strategy paid dividends in not only 2006 but 2008 as well.

Unfortunately, along the way, the Democratic Party lost sight of the importance of grassroots efforts in all 50 states. The state parties were not supported, and the candidates of the far-right Tea Party swept into power starting in the 2010 midterms, laying the groundwork for the Republican takeover of the Senate during the Obama years and finally the Trump presidential victory. Abandoning the 50-state strategy, one could argue, played a role in losing both the 2016 presidential contest as well as key U.S. House and Senate races in states such as Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina, and Florida.

The late former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously talked about how “all politics is local.” Even in the digital age, this still is true to a large extent. People vote in precincts. People are likely to be motivated to get out and vote from talking to a local precinct captain or campaign activist. No amount of Facebook ads replaces a phone call or a knock on the door from a friendly human being coming to tell you about the important issues of the day. National victories like Obama’s in 2008 (or, on the other side of the aisle, Nixon’s in 1968, for that matter) do not happen in a vacuum; rather, they are the dividends paid from years of hard work building up grassroots energy in all 50 states.

As much as personally I abhor the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, contempt for working people, and opprobrium to our natural resources displayed by today’s Republican Party, we can learn lessons from the tactics of the other side.

Republicans, going back at least to Nixon, and even before him, to say Wendell Willkie, the 1940 GOP nominee, have always played the long game. Willkie’s loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt helped propel a moderate strain within the Republican Party that culminated in Eisenhower’s victory in 1952. (Unfortunately, the moderate version of the Republican Party espoused by people like Willkie and Eisenhower got soon swept aside by a racist reactionary rump led by Barry Goldwater in 1964, among others, but that is another story.)

As already discussed, Nixon’s defeat in 1960 nevertheless helped him build support (playing “both sides” of the moderate/reactionary divide in the Republican Party of the time) which lead to his victory eight years later. Progressives of all stripes—ranging from Democratic centrists, to democratic socialists, to Marxist-Leninists, to everything in between—must learn from this if we are to adequately defend against a rise of white supremacy unseen since before the Civil Rights era.

What does it mean to play the long game? It need not be restated what a constitutional crisis America is currently in. With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the nomination of far-right Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace her, rights to affordable and accessible health care, marriage equality, reproductive freedom, the right to form a union in the workplace, and so many other liberties are at risk of being lost at the federal level for a generation.

Even if the Democratic Party prevails in the 2020 election by re-taking the Senate and the presidency, the situation with the Supreme Court may amount to closing the barn door after the horse of fascism has already been let loose. As an example, a 6-3 reactionary Supreme Court could overturn the Affordable Care Act (even if Chief Justice Roberts, an occasional swing vote, supports ACA, it could still fall by a 5-4 vote, especially if Barrett is appointed by a lame duck Republican Senate). The present situation is dire, indeed. It is essential that the Senate and White House are taken back from Republicans because by legislating at the federal level (including getting rid of the filibuster) the damage done by the far-right court can at least be somewhat mollified (by, for instance, passing legislation to strengthen and defend the ACA).

But federal action is not enough. We must fight for our rights at the state and local levels. It is possible, for example, that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision could be reversed, depriving many LGBTQ families of basic rights. This cannot be redressed at the federal level, not without the Supreme Court. We must not give up or fall into the inaction of capitulation and despair. We must carry on the fight at the state legislative level, and that means donating to and supporting state legislative and governor contests to build up progressive legislative bodies across the country to defend the basic civil rights of all people.

Yes, we must vote—always—and donate / volunteer where we can to federal contests, but we must also do the same with state-level contests because we are in a situation where the fight to defend many civil rights may be moving quickly toward the state level.

With the passing of Justice Ginsberg, the United States has arguably passed from being a (very imperfect) democracy to something which is approaching a racist authoritarian regime not unlike Franco’s Spain. This is an emergency for democracy, especially for people of color, LGBTQ people, and working women, and thus it is an “all hands on deck” situation, which means we must employ a 50-state strategy.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of the author.


Francis Erdman
Francis Erdman

Francis Erdman is an IT worker in Massachusetts and is active with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, advocating for LGBTQ and gender equality and wider social justice issues within Jewish communities, including the communities of Jews by Choice and Jews of Color.