Mind the Map

On election night, our eyes were glued to the "battleground states" that would decide the presidential election -- not just the traditional swing states of Ohio and Florida but Virginia and Indiana as well, on this new electoral map where all things had become possible.

But let's take a moment to respect some states that weren't considered battle-grounds. Wisconsin, for example, had been decided by the closest margins in the country in both of the previous presidential elections, 2000 and 2004. On Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points. Or Colorado, which had been an anchor of the Reagan-era "Sagebrush Rebellion," home of conservative powerhouses like the Coors family and James Dobson. Bush won the state twice by solid margins, but John McCain, a senator from a neighboring state, gave up on it well before the election. Obama took Colorado by seven points.

The strong progressive majorities in these former swing states or Republican strongholds are not the accomplishment of the Obama campaign alone; they are more like a gift the campaign was given. Nor did political or partisan work entirely lay the groundwork for the transformations. Colorado and Wisconsin are arguably the best examples of successful progressive efforts to build capacity at the state level. These long-term efforts strengthened think tanks, issue advocacy groups, and community organizations and coordinated them around a common agenda and an awareness, within legal constraints, of elections and their consequences.

Some of the work began in the wake of the 2004 election, when donors recognized what activists had been telling them -- that there was more to conservative dominance than writing checks to candidates -- and turned their attention to building progressive infrastructure. Some of the work goes back even further, such as to the unprecedented coordination of funding in Colorado that led to the Democratic takeover of the legislature and one U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and then to the modification of the state's crippling tax limitation known as TABOR, which had bankrupted public services, in 2005.

This painstaking work paid dividends in 2008. Taking states like Wisconsin and Colorado off the board entirely gave Obama even more time, money, and human resources to concentrate on genuinely competitive states. And in addition to electoral votes, Obama's agenda will now have the backing of two Democratic senators from Colorado -- a first since 1979 -- and Congress will be rid of the odious Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who once said that no issue was more important than banning gay marriage.

At times of liberal ascendancy, we risk forgetting these long-haul investments and organizing in the states. Liberals think of concerted federal action as essential to progress and fairness, an idea quite legitimately rooted in the civil-rights movement and progressive victories like Medicare. And all our thoughts right now are on the transformative possibilities of an Obama administration and supportive Congress. But after three decades of devolution, there's no turning back from the reality that states, their governors, legislators, and parties will play a central role in our country's political future.

Further, the conservative comeback, if there is to be one, will take hold in the states, not in Congress. The recession will devastate state finances, and Democratic governors will be vulnerable. A wave of Republican governors with the good luck to be in office on the other side of the economic cycle could look like geniuses and might even revive the now thoroughly discredited idea that conservatives can govern. Conservative success in the 1990s and into the Bush years had far more to do with the big-state Republican governors who were seen as successful -- George Voinovich in Ohio, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Bill Owens in Colorado, John Engler in Michigan -- than with the impeachment-crazed congressional Republicans. And ideas like welfare reform and standards-based education were made credible by state experience.

Financial support for state and local governments should be a central component of any economic stimulus, because it both provides a bigger boost than other spending and will help these states manage through the crisis. But it's also essential that the work of building progressive infrastructure at the state level -- which is really in its infancy -- continues, for all the reasons that conservatives invested in state and regional think tanks and organizing efforts. The states are where ideas are generated and tested, where programs really succeed or fail in helping improve lives, and, incidentally, where elections of the future will be won or lost.

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