With the draconian new Texas abortion law now in effect, essentially enabling vigilante persecution of innocent citizens, and the GOP’s unsuccessful recall attempt against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Republicans across the country continue their crusade to chip away at fundamental rights and hold onto power by any means possible. As the GOP flexes its state-level power, Democrats will need a strong plan to ensure favorable electoral outcomes in 2022.
This week’s guest on The Brief was Nick Rathod, founder and former executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, which helps advance progressive agendas in state legislatures around the country. He joined hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld to talk about the California recall election and other parts of the political landscape across the country.
With new abortion restrictions being considered by GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country and other state Republican parties eying recall efforts to distract and delay, how can Democrats fight back? It remains to be seen whether Newsom’s performance will serve as a deterrent to future efforts to stymie Democratic leadership—or will we see more of this in the future? “The fact is, in the end, Democratic performance was fantastic—it was exactly where it needed to be,” Moulitsas said. “So is this a bellwether for the epic incoming 2022 cycle, or is California in its own blue bubble with is own dynamics, divorced from the rest of purple America?”
Eleveld wasn’t sure what the new Texas anti-abortion law has accomplished for the Republican base. “The more voters find out about it, the less popular it is … it’s going to serve as a drag on these Republicans … anyone in a swing state trying to defend this law is in a lot of trouble.”
There was almost a sense of ‘the boy who cried wolf’ when liberals said, ‘Republicans want to take away our right to choose.’ And everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve been talking about this for 50 years now,’ … Fifty years where they don’t really want to pass a law to ban [abortion] … whatever, we’re protected, the Supreme Court will protect us. Suddenly, [Republicans] got the Supreme Court they wanted, and they’re getting the laws they wanted. This is one of those things where it’s like—believe what they say. Nobody should be surprised that this is happening because they never pretended otherwise. So that complacency on our side hopefully goes away and people realize, ‘This is something I have to fight for just as hard as the anti-abortion people fight when they turn out and vote.’
At this point, Rathod joined the show, and Moulitsas opened up a conversation about about the results of the failed recall attempt against Newsom and what they tell us about potential future attempts to undermine Democratic leadership.
Eleveld wondered, “[Are the results of the recall] really much of an indicator?” Eleveld then asked Rathod if there were other examples of how this was not a California-specific event and could translate elsewhere.
Rathod thinks that we’ve come full circle in a sense, with a newly powerful backlash from some independents and conservatives against anti-vaxxers. As more and more people chafe at the idea of others shirking their social responsibility to one another in terms of public health, he argued, these individuals are starting to become a group ripe for Democrats to try to win over in 2022:
I think if there’s one lesson to takeaway, it’s that one … I think there’s an anti-anti-vaxxer movement happening in the country as well, and that’s what you’re seeing in those polls. And what you draw from that is that, to your point, independents and some Republicans who have been vaccinated, those people are pretty large numbers—are those the people we can speak to as Democrats?
They’re the ones that are like, ‘I believe in some of Trump’s policies, I believe in small government, [low] taxes, that sort of thing, you know, traditional conservative values. But this thing with COVID? We’re done with it, we got vaccinated. Who are these people that are like, my kids are in school now and saying that they can’t be vaccinated, no masks, that sort of thing?’ I think this is ripe for Democrats to play on and build on, especially going into the midterm elections. It will drive the election. And you’re seeing some of that rhetoric and lessons learned [being applied] in Virginia in the governors race coming up here.
The results of next year’s election are going to demonstrate further polarization, Eleveld surmised, even within parties: “One way or another, the party that comes out of next year is going to be more radicalized … they will have primaried sort of ‘normal’ people out. It’s going to be a crazy caucus in both chambers.”
Rathod referred to the whole situation as a circus, but believes that Democrats can ultimately get a handle on things:
We have Biden, and I think Democrats will have to find a message and a case to make as to why he should be reelected. But if a Trump figure becomes prominent … I think they’re in for a lot of trouble. I think they’ll probably get the whooping that they’ll probably end up deserving … because we were pretty close this time. For all of Trump’s faults, for all of Trump’s shenanigans, but for some of the economic stuff and COVID, we were way too close … [but we] will win the day and calmer minds will prevail, looking into the midterms and the presidential.
Certain counties are also high stakes for Democrats in 2022, as the margin in the House shrank to just five seats last year. Several in particular will be very competitive races, and Eleveld specifically asked about Orange County and what happened there during the recall. Republicans have made inroads with Asian voters in the area, and Moulitsas offered a concerning highlight: Vietnamese Americans swung right heavily—30 points—responding to attacks on Newsom that tied him to socialism. “[They’re] one of the few Asian groups, if not the only Asian group, that actually supported Donald Trump. And it all swung heavily back. So there’s that hope that the suburbs continue to trend in our direction,” he said.
Rathod isn’t surprised, as Republicans have been ruthlessly methodical about consolidating state power and building infrastructure and investment to support their policy goals. “That’s why Republicans move legislation forward [in the states], and then they come to DC and do nothing,” he added. Rathod believes there’s hope for positive effects to trickle down from the presidential level, as Biden’s performance is being closely watched and tied to local Democrats running for office—but Democrats have to take advantage of their window of power right now and act. As he noted,
Biden’s efforts to expand and mandate vaccinations and masks and those sorts of things actually poll really well. I think a lot of Americans are supportive of that because there is a lot of this fatigue. I think those types of things are really where the bread and butter will be. Again, we’ll see at the national level what the federal Democrats do. Hopefully they can go back into their districts in 2022 with an infrastructure bill, some form of voting rights legislation. I think it’ll be really difficult to make the case, especially to Black and brown voters, ‘Please elect us again, give us full control again, and this time we’re going to do it.’ I think that’s going to be something to watch, but again I think it’ll really be COVID that dominates.
Moulitsas noted that Democrats are not good at selling their accomplishments, and many voters are not even aware of Dems’ role in, say, providing the most recent round of COVID relief that came out towards the beginning of this year. “At this point, I’m not sure if we get an infrastructure plan passed, that we’re going to get credit,” he said. “How important are these bills compared to running against Trump and Trump candidates, and oh my god, they’re going to take away vaccine mandates and mask mandates? How much of it is a hope vs. fear … what is the magic formula to get our people to turn out?”
Rathod thinks it’s a combination of both: “Coupled with these extreme candidates that I think will motivate a certain set of people, I think that if you want to start peeling off a lot of Republicans and independents, … I still think that that’s something we need to be able to go back to districts and talk about.”
Moulitsas asked, “How do we get people to realize that these laws happen because we neglect state-level government?”
Republicans have understood the power of states for years, Rathod explained, and Democrats can fight back with this knowledge in mind:
If you think about how power runs in this country, it does emanate from the states—we’re the United States of America. What Republicans have figured out a long time ago is that, not only can you control policy making at the state level if you have control, that’s where the pipeline for new candidates comes from … that’s where redistricting comes from. That’s also where people learn and get to know how government and policymaking works, and they get messaging at that level to reinforce what laws are that eventually emanates to the federal level.
Because Republicans have been able to frame in laws, issues, and policies their way, they have powerful control over shaping narratives—and without significant investment in state infrastructure, Democrats will always be playing a game of catchup. “It is just a combination of a lot of things that we just miss when you miss investment at the local level … we need to build similar infrastructure in the states,” Rathod added.
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