What The Base Wants In The States

By Colin McAuliffe (@ColinJMcAuliffe)

It’s impossible to understate the importance of the 2018 midterms. Not only is control of congress up for grabs, but Democrats also have a chance to break the Republican stranglehold on state governments. Thirty-six governorships and more than 6,000 seats in state legislatures will be elected this November, and control of several statehouses will be decided. If and when Democrats begin to win back power in some of these states, they will then have to decide which policies to prioritize for their governing agenda.

To get a sense of what Democrats’ priorities are for state level legislation, we polled a nationally representative sample of Democrats and asked then to allocate 100 points to thirteen different policies that they would like their state governments to pursue. In our last post, we reported the results from a similar exercise but with federal priorities. A few of the policies such as gun control, green jobs, and automatic voter registration are in both the federal and state level priority questions since these could be implemented at the state and/or the federal level. In other instances, we have variants of federal policies for the state level. As an example, we have Medicaid expansion at the state level and Medicare for All at the federal level. Finally there are a few policies which only appear in the state or the federal level questions, but not both. The Supreme Court is controlled by a majority of conservative ideologues, and so the largest gains (and losses) in the battle for reproductive rights and LGBT equality will probably occur at the state level.

Below is the national distribution of how respondents allocated their points. We further break out the results by whether or not the respondent lives in a state that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Like the national results, gun control and healthcare are among Democrats’ highest priorities. We also see that in states which did not expand it, Medicaid expansion is the top priority. Eligibility requirements vary from state to state, but federal law mandates minimum requirements to ensure a basic level of coverage. The Affordable Care Act expanded these minimum requirements to include nearly all individuals up to 133 percent of the poverty line, with the federal government footing the over 90 percent of the bill for the expanded coverage. Since Medicaid is a joint federal-state program, The ACA expansion lead to a dispute between the federal government and several Republican-controlled state governments.

While expansion is generally popular, support is strongly polarized along racial lines. It is unsurprising, then, that when the Supreme Court ruled that states could choose not to expand Medicaid as originally stipulated  by the Affordable Care Act, many did. Now, Medicaid expansion is one of the most salient issues in state elections and was among the main reasons for Democrats electoral success in Virginia in 2017. Grassroots movements to push for Medicaid expansion are popping up in red states around the country, and expansion referenda will be on the ballot in several states in 2018 and 2019.

Gun control was the base’s other top issue for state priorities, and gun laws vary quite a bit from state to state. Gun control has always been a salient issue for Democrats, and recent school shootings have ignited a new wave of activism lead by survivors. There is a lot of room for improvement in the gun laws of many states, but since guns often are purchased in states with lax gun laws to be used in a crime in states with stricter laws, it’s crucial to make sure that there is parity between states.

Our post on Democrat’s federal priorities showed that Democrats have varied interests and very few are single issue voters. We find the same is true for state priorities, were most Democrats allocated no more than half of their points to a single issue.

At the federal level, impeachment drew a lot of support from single issue voters. This is not an option for the state level, instead, among single issue voters Medicaid expansion, increased minimum wage, tuition free community college, and limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) saw gains relative to all Democrats.

We found disappointingly low prioritization for several key issues such as such as anti-discrimination laws for LGBT folks, repeal of abortion restrictions, and laws protecting survivors of sexual violence. Since Democrats have very broad policy goals and their are many important issues for state governments to deal with, we should be careful not to over interpret these results. However,  this could suggest that some Democrats may be undervaluing state governments as a place to advance a robust agenda for social justice. With a conservative Supreme Court, many states will become battlegrounds for these issues. An outright ban an abortion is an extreme position with low support in every state, but that will not stop Republicans from trying to ramp up their efforts to impose more restrictions on the ability of a woman to get an abortion.

Blue state Democrats should not take these issues for granted either, since state level Democratic representatives are often opposed to progressive change. For example in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo orchestrated the formation of a group of state senators known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who caucused with Republicans after being elected as Democrats. This effectively gave control of the New York state senate to Republicans, and the IDC have voted to block all kinds of progressive legislation, including reforms to New York’s relatively regressive laws on abortion rights. Last September, most IDC incumbents were primaried and defeated by progressive challengers, but a Democratic state senate in New York will still be forced to deal with the much more conservative governor Cuomo to advance progressive legislation.

Repealing anti-union laws is another state level priority that Democrats may be undervaluing. In the past we’ve argued that unions are good as hell, not only for improving wages and benefits for their members (and even their non members too), but for being a potent political force capable of engaging and mobilizing working people. Unions also help Democrats build power over the long-term by engaging their base. Teachers strikes around the country, including in red states, have been successful in winning better pay for themselves in addition to better conditions for the students they teach. This movement is already getting results at the ballot box as well, for example in Oklahoma, 15 of the 19 Republicans who voted against teacher pay increases were recently ousted in primaries. Expanding collective bargaining rights via state level legislation would go a long way in fighting the relentless efforts by deep pocketed special interests to undermine organized labor.

Just about everyone understands that it’s important to win state legislatures, but the sheer number of races can make it difficult to decide on how to commit one’s resources to have to most impact. If you’re interested in contributing to progressive candidates running in races that will decide control of several state houses around the country, we’ve compiled a list through our Give Smart initiative. You can find descriptions of the candidates and links to Act Blue donation pages here. We recommend donating prioritizing Give Smart 5, 4 and 3.

Give Smart 5: New York

Give Smart 4: Progressive Women

Give Smart 3: Launch Progress

Give Smart 2: Every District

Give Smart 1

Data for Progress/YouGov Blue polling of 1,903 Democrats, fielded October 11-15 online and weighted to be nationally representative of Democrats.