Five reasons to get involved in state legislative races (w/poll)

cross-posted around the blogosphere

On July 4 I marched with volunteers and staff for Jerry Sullivan, Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 59.

We don’t hear much about state legislative races on national blogs, because it would be overwhelming to keep up with what’s going on all over the country.

But you should get involved on behalf of a good Democrat running for your state’s Assembly, House or Senate. Five reasons why are after the jump.

1. The 2010 census looms.

Looking at states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Republicans hold more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than they “should” have if you consider the statewide strength of Democrats and Republicans. One big reason is that Republicans dominated those states’ legislatures during the last round of redistricting.

If you want an enduring Democratic majority and you live in a state with multiple Congressional districts, you should focus on getting more Democrats in the legislature.

2. Many policy matters are determined at the state level.

Even if Democrats already control your state legislature, I’ll bet there aren’t enough progressives working on some of the environmental, labor or election reform issues you care about.

In the Iowa legislature, clean elections reform and regulation of confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are among the many issues that our Democratic leadership refuses to move forward.

The difference between a slim Democratic majority and a solid Democratic majority could make or break key legislative initiatives in the next two years.

In 2007, a “fair share” bill that would have strengthened unions in this right-to-work state didn’t have enough support to clear the Iowa House. If we increase the Democratic majority from the current 53 seats (out of 100) to 55 or 57 seats, perhaps that bill could advance.

3. Getting progressive Democrats elected to state legislatures will build our bench for future House, Senate or gubernatorial races.

Candidates who have served in the legislature are often more knowledgeable on a range of policy issues. They are more seasoned on the campaign trail. They may also have good name recognition and contacts with the key political journalists in your state.

4. You probably can find a competitive statehouse race near you, no matter where you live.

Maybe you’re in a state where the outcome of the presidential race is predetermined, and there are no competitive Congressional districts.

I’m betting you wouldn’t have to go far to find some good Democrat facing a tough contest.

For example, let’s say you live in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids. Barack Obama is heavily favored to win Iowa’s electoral votes for reasons I discuss here. U.S. Senator Tom Harkin is getting a pass; his challenger has very little money or name recognition. Congressman Dave Loebsack represents your strongly Democratic district (D+7) in an area where Obama will have huge coattails. So, where should you volunteer?

Nate Willems, a former regional director for Howard Dean and occasional contributor to MyDD, is trying to hold House district 29, covering parts of Linn County and Johnson County. Longtime Democratic incumbent Ro Foege is retiring.

Eric Palmer, a freshman incumbent from Oskaloosa, could use your help in House district 75. The Republican he beat in 2006 is trying to win his seat back.

Elesha Gayman is another good freshman legislator. She narrowly defeated a two-term incumbent in House district 84, which is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Palmer and Gayman are among five Democratic representatives in Iowa who have been targeted this year in corporate-funded radio and television commercials.

Swati Dandekar, current representative for House district 36, is trying to win Senate district 18, which has been held for a long time by retiring Republican Mary Lundby. That district includes a large area in Linn County.

If you’re lucky, some blogger in your own state has compiled a handy list of the battleground districts. Otherwise, get active on your state community blog for Democrats and ask for advice on where to volunteer.

If you live near a state border, you may want to help a worthy Democrat in a neighboring state.

5. Your individual actions are more likely to make a difference in a statehouse race.

By all means, donate to and volunteer for Obama’s campaign if you are inspired to do so, especially if you live in a competitive state.

But your money and volunteer energy will go further in a short-staffed legislative race.

Also, if you are considering a political career, either as a candidate or a campaign staffer, you will get more hands-on experience with a variety of tasks if you volunteer for a statehouse candidate.

You may think that Obama will give down-ticket candidates all the help they need in November. But depending on where you live, the Obama campaign may not be putting its GOTV muscle in the crucial legislative districts.

I was very concerned to learn a few days ago that the Iowa Democratic Party has in effect shut down its “coordinated campaign” and transferred control over GOTV statewide to the Obama campaign.

What’s best for maximizing Obama’s presidential vote is not necessarily what’s best for maximizing the number of Democrats elected to the state legislature. For instance, Obama’s field plan for Johnson County and Linn County might focus on student precincts in Iowa City and urban precincts in Cedar Rapids.

However, we need strong GOTV efforts in other parts of Linn and Johnson Counties if we want to elect Willems in House district 29 or Dandekar in Senate district 18.

I have no idea whether the Obama campaign’s field plan for Polk County will focus on the precincts we need to elect Jerry Sullivan in House district 59.

Since I see little chance of John McCain winning Iowa’s electoral votes, I would rather spend my volunteer time on competitive districts. Whether Obama wins Iowa by 5 percent or 10 percent is less important than getting more and better Democrats in the Iowa House and Senate.

Please take the poll and comment, if you like.

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