For the last decade, the 8 in 10 Americans who support safe and legal abortion access have watched in horror as the Republican-led dismantling of personal autonomy has played out in slow motion in front of them, slowly eroding reproductive freedom all across the country. Now, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Roe v. Wade and overturned 50 years of precedent. The effects will be dire and immediate: women will die, and thousands will be forced to forget their careers, personal savings, and physical and emotional well-being.
This devastating setback for reproductive rights will reverberate across the country thanks to a decades-long coordinated effort between anti-abortion activists and the Republican Party. Together they worked to create a multi-level political apparatus designed to reverse Roe. For an entire generation, Republicans have understood that they need to control multiple levers of power to accomplish key policy priorities and exert long-lasting authority. They didn’t solely focus on the federal government like Democrats did — instead, they worked on shoring up state legislatures and the courts.
Republicans understand that legislative power does not operate in a vacuum. If Democrats hope to protect fundamental rights for the next generation, Democrats need to build the same state-focused operation, immediately.
Let’s go back to 2008. Republicans feared they would be locked out of power at the federal level, so they turned their attention to the states. As a party, they dedicated vastly more resources to the state legislative level of the ballot than Democrats and got a great return on their investment. That decision helped Republicans flip 22 chambers in one night. They then used their power to rig congressional and legislative races by gerrymandering themselves into power. Thus allowing them to consistently win up and down the ballot, despite garnering significantly fewer votes.
But it’s not just elected offices at play. Republicans were able to steal a Supreme Court seat, hold power to appoint two more, and stack the lower courts with hyper-conservative judges. By solidifying the judiciary, Republican lawmakers cemented another form of power to persist in the absence of the presidency or a congressional majority.
In state legislatures all across the country, Republicans have passed abortion bans with their majorities, bolstered by their redistricting gains and a bevy of anti-voter laws that have made it harder for the full electorate to push back against unpopular legislation. For the first time in years, Republicans have a conservative Supreme Court that will not only allow these laws to stand, but has empowered Republicans up and down the ballot to pass more extreme policies across the country.
Democrats are catching up. Since 2016, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has flipped chambers and seats from red to blue all across the country. Democrats won back the US House of Representatives and have passed a transformative infrastructure package and lifted the US out of the pandemic. The Democratic-controlled Senate has confirmed a record number of judicial nominations sent to them by the Biden administration.
But we’re still fighting from behind.
To fight back and protect the health and safety of the millions of Americans at risk, Democrats need to flip the script, adopt a similar roadmap, and begin to build coordinated power at every level of the ballot. Democrats must turn out in droves this fall to not only hold our majorities in the US House and Senate, but challenge every Republican state legislative majority and secure overlooked positions like governorships, state supreme court seats, attorneys general, and secretaries of state.
As a crucial step to check unified Republican power, the DLCC has formed a Federal Advisory Council, a collaborative effort between members of Congress from states across the country to amplify the work of Democratic state legislatures and build a strong partnership with lawmakers up and down the ballot — but this collaboration is just that, a first step. Democrats are still far from the level of investment conservatives have made to entrench their power and enact some of their more extreme political victories.
In 2020, individual long-shot races, like Amy McGrath’s $96 million failed attempt to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), dwarfed spending to elect Democrats at the state legislative level. We as Democrats need to change, or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to make sure that all levels of the ballot receive the attention and resources needed in order to win and protect our most fundamental freedoms.
This fall, there are no “down-ballot races,” and there is no “top of the ticket.” There is one fight for all Democrats — protect our most sacred rights. That is why we are both working in solidarity to unify Democrats and begin to build long-lasting power. Now let’s go to work.
Grace Meng represents New York’s 6th District and Jessica Post is president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.