Martin O'Malley's campaign for candidates in other states may be self-serving, but it's also smart for the Democratic Party.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has spent the last year supporting candidates in down-ballot races across the country. Wearing blue jeans and rolled-up sleeves, he’s proselytized to volunteers and local party leaders — in places like in Lower Gwynedd, Pa., Waukesha County, Wis., and Thermopolis, Wyo. — that the best way for Democrats to change the direction of the country is to win back the states.
Of course, it’s easy to view Mr. O’Malley’s march on the states as merely attempt to get back on the road to the White House. Funded by his political action committee and aptly named Win Back Your State, his initiative certainly provides a reason to campaign around the country, build relationships in local political circles, expand fundraising outreach and earn some free national media coverage. Trips to early primary states — for example, headlining events for local candidates in Cornish, N.H., and in Linn County, Ia. — along with affable redirects when asked specifically about a 2020 presidential run reinforces a more cynical interpretation of his advocacy on behalf of others.
But party-building and Marty-building are not mutually exclusive endeavors — and the presence of presidential ambitions doesn’t mitigate the short-term necessity and potential long-term benefits of a focus on the states for the Democratic Party.
After heavy losses in 2008, Republicans — bolstered by anti-Obama sentiment among their rank-and-file and the tea party movement — focused resources on winning state-level elections. The goal was to produce state governments with Republican-majorities that would eventually determine how the district lines would be drawn post-2010 Census. In total, Republicans gained around 1,000 state legislative seats in the 2010 and 2014 cycles, and the redistricting — that some have likened to gerrymandering on steroids — which resulted from their successes has hindered the ability of Democrats to recoup their legislative losses.
Party control of a state legislature comes with power that is often underappreciated by the average voter. The majority party sets the policy agenda for the state, while the minority party is left with procedural maneuvers, amendments and often futile appeals for bipartisan cooperation. A governor can either enhance or check the power of a legislative majority — and the GOP has been has been similarly successful in electing state-level executives over the same time period.
The states are a political training ground, thus the last few election cycles have also kept Democratic talent from the field. Those fresh-faced, politically unknown local candidates that Mr. O’Malley is stumping for today might be the congressional and presidential candidates of the future. To this point, nearly half the current members of Congress and more than half of all U.S. presidents and vice presidents once served in their state legislatures.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mileahkromer.