Advancing Democratic Policy in the Red States

Democrats can advance public policy goals in states where the party does not have an immediate path to political power through citizen-led referenda, initiatives, and constitutional amendments.

We are far from where we need to be on this particular issue in Democratic funding circles. We are not only averse to the anti-democratic tactics of the Republican Party; we also believe that progressive policy can make tangible improvements in the lives of every American.

We should seek to implement Democratic policy items across the nation in whatever increments possible. We should strive to ensure that the Democrats who live in red states, particularly African-Americans in the South, can see a brighter future even if the Republicans who control those states refuse to implement popular reforms.

The geography at play

The best opportunities for making policy change in the red states are those where citizens can launch referenda, initiatives, and constitutional amendments.

The map below shows the states where that is possible, with a focus on the red states.

Figure. The Great States of Citizen Democracy

Within the red states, we see three core power-building opportunities. The first is Medicaid Expansion: giving people healthcare is not only morally sound, it also empowers more people to engage in the political process.

The second is fair redistricting: in states where Republicans are unwilling to embrace democratic values, the people can enshrine them.

The third is marijuana legalization: a key issue for both engaging young people and enacting criminal justice reform. The table below indicates where these issues stand within the red states.

In 2020, activists made progress on these different policy initiatives, expanding Medicaid in Oklahoma and legalizing weed in Montana, for example. The path is there for more progress on these issues, and more, in the years ahead.

States that have active Medicaid Expansion are denoted with a “Yes.” Those that have recently approved expansion are listed as “In Progress,” ditto for fair redistricting.

States with “mixed” marijuana legalization have generally not legalized recreational use, but may have decriminalized recreational marijuana use, and/or legalized medicinal use.

Table. Status of Medicaid Expansion, Fair Redistricting, and Marijuana Legalization in the Red States

StateMedicaid ExpansionFair RedistrictingMarijuana Legalization
MissouriIn ProgressUnfairLegalized
NebraskaIn ProgressUnfairIllegal
OklahomaIn ProgressUnfairMixed
South DakotaNoUnfairLegalized
UtahYesIn ProgressMixed

Turning successful referenda into real movements

This approach to policy change has been successfully tested in states across the country. Medicaid was expanded in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah. Amendment 4 in Florida worked to expand voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals. Ballot initiatives have been a major way that marijuana legalization has blossomed.

But there is some evidence that the standard way of operating doesn’t bring with it the potential multiplier effect of this work: reframing policy in these states to allow more progressive issues to proceed and, perhaps, to bring about more positive electoral results for Democrats.

The Idaho model, however, offers a stronger direction for future work. The Idaho Medicaid expansion team embraced the Big Organizing principles articulated in the Bernie campaign, giving volunteers a real stake in making change in their state, rather than investing in polls, consultants, and big ad buys.

That powered Medicaid expansion to a 61% margin and created an organization for future engagement that was working to reform education funding in the state before COVID-19 limited organizing opportunities.

Elect progressives, or not-conservatives, if not Democrats

Unfortunately, in many of these states and critical districts the Democratic Party brand is tarnished. It will take many years of focused messaging and persuasion to change that.

In the meantime, grassroots activists have found some strategies to beat the far-right in these locations. In Alaska, organized approaches to running nimble, innovative campaigns have elected Independents who have helped Democrats have some control of the Alaska House since 2014. The Top 4 primary passed in 2020 will also allow for more moderate voices to gain power.

In Louisiana, Independent candidate Roy Adams has modeled a new type of Cajun political coalition that might undercut the now-dominant Republicans in a state where moderate Democratic policies, like those pursued by John Bel Edwards, are still popular.

A reinforcing note

One of the most dispiriting refrains in liberal politics is when red states are discounted. Who cares about those people? Well, they voted for ____. In the most partisan terms, to abandon red states is to abandon red state Democrats, particularly the Black voters who have been the bedrock of the Democratic Party.

In broader, moral terms, it is to accept the unacceptable conditions of those states, rather than work for the change we believe in. This effort must be a part of our power building and country changing work.

How do Democrats advance progressive policy in the Red States?

Redouble and reinvest in this work

Only a fraction of the possible issues on the ballot have been advanced in the past few years, even in favorable cycles like 2018. We need consistent investment in the signature-gathering, people-organizing, and message-advancing to maintain momentum in advancing progressive reforms.

Take the volunteer, Idaho-based approach

Organizing is key to turning a ballot initiative into a long-term opportunity for change. We need funding to keep this work moving, too. The Amendment 4 campaign in Florida ran into trouble when it was unable to mount a challenge to Republican efforts to curtail the law.

Groups need to be poised to fight it, so using ballot initiatives to create long-lasting reform organizations will be critical for sustained success.

Advance independent candidates where sensible

As noted above, in an age of anti-partisanship, Democrats may benefit in red states from helping to elect Independents, or even reasonable Republicans, who can help move the political center away from the far-right.

Flood the zone with messaging in follow-up

From a policy standpoint, the point of this work is to advance the policies that will improve people’s lives. From a power standpoint, it’s about breaking red state understanding of who is on the people’s side.

Continued and sustained mass media messaging in these states is fundamental. Voters need to understand that it was Democrats and progressives who seek to advance more reform to improve their lives.

Solve for the rural bleeding

The Missouri Medicaid Expansion vote was notable for how it mirrored larger demographic trends: suburban voters, even in well-to-do places, voted to expand, while poor, rural areas, many of them ancestrally Democratic, did not. While that trade may work, even in Missouri, making further gains in other states will require greater rural support.

What will EveryDistrict do to bring change to Red States?

Identify how to win back some of the rural vote

A critical path to gaining a larger political footing in red states – and truly all states – is to reverse Democrats’ recent declines among rural voters.

Through our Win Number program in 2021 and 2022, EveryDistrict will pilot strategies and messages focused on rural consciousness and how Democrats can best help rural voters.

Extend the EveryDistrict state platform to Red States

In 2020, EveryDistrict provided the only direct-to-candidate fundraising platform for competitive state legislative districts across the country, but it was focused on nine purple states.

By 2022, EveryDistrict will expand this platform to competitive seats in red states, so Democrats can gain a larger foothold everywhere. As part of that platform, we will work with viable independent candidates who can shift the direction of these states.

Create a grassroots movement to not only pass ballot initiatives, but to build a stronger Party as a result

With our work in key districts, we’ll partner with in-state groups to target the voters needed to advance important ballot initiatives.

Unlike other national groups, we’ll tie the successes of those ballot initiatives to local groups and politicians so we can not only get the right policies in place in red states, but also begin to change hearts and minds about who is behind progress in these communities.