Fifty Shades of Purple

The second week in October, while Tea Partiers in Congress were tanking the GOP’s approval numbers with a government shutdown, the Republican National Committee traveled to Los Angeles to make an announcement: The party was investing $10 million to woo Latino voters in California and 16 other states. This might seem newsworthy, considering that Republicans spent much of the 2012 campaign repelling Latinos. But the event received little attention, though the Los Angeles Times did note that it featured “roast beef and cheese enchiladas.” (Ick.) The notion of Republicans competing for Latino votes in California seems ridiculous; ever since Governor Pete Wilson led an effort in 1994 to keep undocumented immigrants from accessing state services, Latinos have viewed the party as toxic. With Republicans in Washington blocking immigration reform and Medicaid expansion, the divide between Republicans and Latinos has only grown. It will take more than $10 million to bridge it.

But the Latino outreach is part of a larger scheme that emerged from party leaders’ post-2012 soul searching: a road map to build Republican infrastructure and mobilize voters in all 50 states. If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2005, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean unveiled a 50-state strategy, putting organizers and fundraisers into provinces his party had ignored, and lost, for decades. Conventional wisdom said it was a nutty idea. Why should Democrats waste money in Utah and Mississippi? Indeed, the party would abandon the plan as soon as Dean left his post in 2009. But the strategy paid dividends in 2008, when Democrats carried formerly red states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana.

The Democrats’ current version of red-state outreach is more narrowly focused. Battleground Texas, an initiative launched in February by ex-Obama field staffers, hopes to spend $10 million a year registering, engaging, and persuading voters in a state that Republicans have come to see as their birthright. It’s an effort funded by individual donors, not by the party. But Texas shows why such outreach could make a difference for Democrats elsewhere. Voters who are disengaged, in Texas and the rest of the country, tend to be low-income, young, and nonwhite—all groups that lean liberal on social and economic issues.

To win those voters, Democrats don’t have to change their message; they have to motivate people to go to the polls. In states like Texas, Republicans always win—they’ve carried 100 statewide elections in a row—and Democrats hardly put up a fight. State Senator Wendy Davis, who had liberals across the country cheering for her filibuster of an anti-abortion bill last summer, is generating excitement over her gubernatorial bid in 2014, but it’s doubtful her party will find a full slate of statewide candidates to run with her. If Democrats had been organized and invested in the state over the past decade, Davis might be the favorite; instead, she’s a long shot.

For Republicans, the benefits of contesting blue states are less obvious but could be more significant. If the GOP gets serious about wooing Latinos and speaking to blue-state voters, it can’t stick with its current message of right-wing radicalism, which has driven away moderates and minorities. Given the country’s demographic and ideological drift leftward, Tea Party purity is a losing long-term tactic. A 50-state strategy that nudges the party toward the center could prevent the GOP from fading into irrelevance.

The real winner, if the parties started competing for votes across the map, wouldn’t be Republicans or Democrats; it would be small-d democracy. Voter turnout would surely rise. When only one party is courting them, voters disconnect. In 2012 battleground states, where both parties poured resources into voter outreach and engagement, turnout was high. In Ohio, 65 percent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot; in Virginia, 66 percent did; and in Colorado, a whopping 70 percent turned out. But one-party states like Texas (50 percent) and California (55 percent) were both below the national average.

Voters can’t hold elected officials accountable if their party affiliation virtually assures their re-election. A weak opposition party can’t serve as an effective watchdog on those in power, either. Politicians in unchallenged parties also tend to move to ideological extremes. When general elections are largely decided in party primaries, as they are in Illinois and Texas, small numbers of highly motivated voters can carry the day; that’s how the Tea Party took over the Republican Party in states like Texas. It’s what elected Ted Cruz and what emboldened him to orchestrate an unpopular government shutdown without having to worry about his own political future. In the strange world that noncompetitive politics has wrought, Cruz is doing precisely what Republican primary voters back home elected him to do.

Neither party, of course, will pursue a 50-state strategy because it thinks such a plan is good for democracy. But we’re at a juncture when both believe they can benefit from talking to voters they’ve long ignored. If the parties embraced 50-state strategies, rather than putting most of their resources into a handful of battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida, who would gain the most by 2020 or 2030? It’s impossible to say. Democrats would win over a lot of people simply by giving them a reason to vote. Republicans might acquire even more converts by revising their message to appeal to Latinos and other voters who have written them off. One thing’s for sure, though: American politics would be a lot healthier.

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