In the year and a half since President Donald Trump’s victory, progressives have sprung into action at the state level, scoring a string of special election victories and triggering widespread expectations of a blue wave—or even a tsunami—in the 2018 midterms.
In some blue pockets of the country, we’re already seeing what that wave could yield.
Washington state has passed some 300 bills since securing full Democratic control of the legislature in a special election last November. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has signed many of those into law, including a voting rights package that includes same-day registration and pre-registration for teenagers. Meanwhile, New Jersey, which attained trifecta Democratic control of the statehouse and governor’s mansion after Democrat Phil Murphy succeeded Chris Christie, is poised to enact the nation’s most sweeping equal pay legislation.
Still, Republicans maintain an overwhelming advantage at the state level. They have trifecta control in 26 states compared to just eight for Democrats, with significant supermajorities in many of those legislatures. The focus for most national progressive groups this year is simply chipping away at those numbers and, where they can, flipping chambers or governorships to break the GOP’s hold.
But the undeniable momentum on the Democratic side has activists and lawmakers dreaming of more than just reversing Republican policies. In blue strongholds, progressives are using this moment to pass legislation they’ve long wanted and create bulwarks against Trump administration policies.
Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, called Washington’s 60-day session “historically incredible” and vowed that Democrats would continue to “raise hell” on voting rights and other core progressive issues wherever possible.
“I think for us it showed what can happen when we flip a Dem chamber,” Post told TPM in a phone interview. “They went into session in 2018 banning bump stocks, banning LGBT conversion therapy. There’s so much progress that can be made in the states when you flip these chambers—and fast.”
Karen Keiser, Washington state Senate President Pro Tempore, agreed that “the Senate’s hair was on fire this year.” State Senate Democrats spent the five years they were “shut out in the minority” perfecting key pieces of legislation, and, as soon as the chamber flipped, “decided we were going to go for the gold and get it done” on issues from equal pay to net neutrality to sexual harassment.
Like the Democratic attorneys general who pledged to fight against Trump’s agenda after his election, Keiser sees it as the responsibility of states like Washington to work in conjunction with likeminded legislatures to “protect our citizens from the deconstruction of the federal system of standards.”
With Trump ally Christie out of office, New Jersey has taken steps to do so, joining other legislatures in a multi-state program to counter the Trump EPA’s decision to weaken rules reducing carbon pollution from cars. Though power struggles between Gov. Phil Murphy and senate leadership have reportedly impeded the sort of wholesale reforms seen in Washington, the Garden State has vastly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program, will soon enact stringent protections against pay discrimination, and is moving forward with a slew of bills to firm up the state’s already-strict gun laws.
New York appears to be next in line. Democrats are expected to prevail in special elections scheduled for the end of April, securing trifecta control by winning a majority in the state Senate. The DLCC’s Jessica Post is hopeful that the end of a power-sharing agreement between state Republicans and the breakaway faction of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who caucused with them, will allow truly progressive legislation to be enacted.
Activist, journalist and No IDC New York steering committee member Sean McElwee told TPM he was skeptical of the “turncoat” IDC legislators and is still backing primary challengers to unseat them. But he feels “confident” that Democrats will take control of the Senate, and that same-day and automatic voter registration will be at the top of lawmakers’ priority list once they do.
“You’re going to see, in every state where Democrats gain, these major pushes for voting rights,” McElwee said, noting the work of grassroots activists on this issue. “That’s something that can really only be won at the state level.”
This true-blue push in certain states is far from the norm. As Ben Wexler-Waite, communications director for Democratic super PAC Forward Majority, pointed out, the majority of resources and funds from national groups is going toward simply making “significant inroads on the overwhelming Republican control of state legislatures,” where Democrats “just have so much ground to make up.”
But the Republican State Leadership Committee, which did not respond to TPM’s request for comment, has signaled alarm about the “elevated threat level” in places like Washington and Virginia.
“We must be prepared for the Democrats’ enhanced organization and spending abilities,” RSLC President Matt Walker said in a November 2017 statement after Democrats won big in those states.
The DLCC’s Post said that it’s possible to imagine trifecta Democratic control in states like Colorado, Maine and New Hampshire. Even New Mexico and, eventually, Minnesota and Virginia, could be in play, she said.
The midterms are unlikely to see a mass consolidation of Democratic power. But in the places where they’re able, expect them to dig in.