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Why State Parties Are the First Line of Defense for Democracy

The chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party details how he keeps the right at bay in a crucial swing state. It isn’t easy.

Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler speaks at rally in Madison, Wisconsin
Andy Manis/Getty
The author, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler, speaks at a rally on June 8, in Madison, Wisconsin.

On January 6, 2021, as insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, a far less high-profile protest was taking place outside City Hall in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Trump flags waved, and handmade signs bobbed amid the snow in front of the municipal building’s plain granite facade.

“The Proud Boys? You know who they are. The Oath Keepers, the militia. Listen, they aren’t going to sit back and let our freedom go down the drain. You bet there’s going to be a war,” one attendee told a local reporter.

Then the protest’s organizer, Melinda Eck, chimed in. “I haven’t really thought about that,” she said. “What I want to do is I want to go to D.C. for the inauguration for Donald J. Trump.”

But would there be violence from the president’s supporters if that didn’t happen? “They haven’t been so far, but I will tell you that there’s a bunch of patriots out there, and they are going to fight for their freedom,” Eck said. “So if they have to, I believe they will.”

And then, as if to create a crack of daylight between her and those preparing for violence, she added: “Do I support that? Not necessarily.”

The rally in Green Bay and the insurrection in Washington, D.C., failed to overturn the 2020 election. Biden was inaugurated two weeks later. But Melinda Eck didn’t give up.

Instead, she got on the ballot.

This April 5, in just a few short weeks, Green Bay voters will decide whether to elect Eck—and a group of fellow right-wingers—to sweep out the moderate majority on their City Council and install a group with very different ideas about “election integrity.” With control of the City Council in a state where elections are administered at the municipal level, this group could swiftly set about putting its anti-democracy ideas into practice.

Green Bay is Wisconsin’s third-largest city, a community in northeast Wisconsin where Biden drew 25,036 votes to Trump’s 21,123. Biden’s edge there in 2020 constituted about a fifth of his statewide margin in Wisconsin, which was the tipping-point state in the Electoral College, just as it had been in 2016. Four of the last six presidential elections in Wisconsin have come down to less than 1 percent. Democratic Governor Tony Evers won in 2018 by a landslide 1.1 percent—and is up for reelection this fall.

While the nation’s eyes are already focused on Wisconsin’s Senate contest against the noxious Ron Johnson, the governor’s race here has even greater national significance. Governor Evers’s reelection could well be the key to a free and secure presidential race in 2024.

The history is telling: After Governor Scott Walker signed voter-suppression bills designed to help Republicans, Trump eked out a win in Wisconsin in 2016. By contrast, Governor Evers’s support for Wisconsinites’ freedom to vote ensured a level playing field on which Biden prevailed in 2020. In 2021, Evers vetoed a half-dozen voter-suppression bills passed by the GOP-run legislature; now, more and worse bills—including one that provides for the nullification of election results—are working their way through a state legislature that hopes one day to send them to a Republican governor.

If Evers were to fall in November, anti-democracy legislation could easily become law. Moreover, Wisconsin’s governor—not its secretary of state—provides the ultimate signature certifying the state’s election results. A Ron Johnson defeat and an Evers victory, or the reverse, could come down to a few votes per precinct across the state.

An anti-democracy City Council in Green Bay—and in a few more towns like it across the state—might be able to suppress or discard enough ballots to tip statewide races that, over and over, come down to razor-thin margins. In short, what Melinda Eck and her compatriots failed to achieve after 2020—the overturning of a presidential election—they might be able to achieve in 2024.

This article is about how to stop them.

It’s about how, in the absence of federal legislation and facing a hostile U.S. Supreme Court, in a political climate of sinking poll numbers and rising anxiety, friends of democracy can find overlooked levers of power to defeat an authoritarian movement bent on avenging an imaginary crime. The most important vehicle for defending democracy in 2022 might well be the least glamorous institutions in American politics: the much-maligned, typically underfunded, often invisible, absolutely essential legal and political entities known as state Democratic parties.

State Democratic parties take outsize blame when things go wrong and, typically, no credit when they go right. They are legal entities, charged by law with duties like nominating poll workers, and they are grassroots political organizations that mobilize volunteers to turn out voters. Usually, state parties inflate like a balloon for a few months every other year, taking in funds from candidates’ campaigns to hire organizers and other staff for the last push in a general election—before deflating promptly after Election Day, generally to fewer than 10 full-time staff, and often to fewer than five. (For some state parties, the fact that the number doesn’t dip to zero is made possible in part by the Democratic National Committee, which provides critical funds to each state to keep things going even in lean years.)

Volunteer leaders and rank-and-file party members at the state and county level move heaven and earth with often shoestring resources, but the boom-bust nature of campaign funding and staff makes it difficult for state parties to engage at scale with voters and candidates year-round. This makes it particularly hard to systematically move the needle on the thousands of local races—including city councils, county clerks, and county auditors who oversee election administration (every state’s system is different).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. With sufficient resources, leadership, and partnerships, state parties can be a bulwark against attacks on democracy.

In some states, the state party maintains a year-round organizing staff that mobilizes volunteers to engage in ongoing door-knocking and phone-banking, keeping relationships with voters fresh, voter registrations streaming in, and voter data files up to date. Multiple states run year-round voter-protection teams that help voters navigate registration, absentee ballot requests, and labyrinthine voter ID laws. Many state parties employ year-round communications and digital staffers to pitch stories about GOP malfeasance, organize press events about Democratic achievements, and capitalize on news stories to recruit volunteers and donors. Some state parties employ staff to recruit, train, and support candidates for local office and to train and support current and future operatives and volunteers. In every state, volunteer leaders pour talent, time, and treasure into supporting candidates and building infrastructure; in the stronger state parties, that volunteer effort is buoyed and supported and amplified by a professional team that turns energy into momentum.

I speak from personal experience: Since June 2019, I’ve served as the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, where we do all of the above, and much more.

I’m lucky to be from one of the dozen or so states where the state party chair is a paid position. We maintain a staff of dozens of professionals working to defend democracy and elect Democrats in a state that, particularly since 2010, has served as a petri dish for authoritarian GOP tactics and policies, and in which a gerrymandered GOP-run state legislature and GOP-dominated state Supreme Court never stop looking for ways to obstruct Democratic victories. Despite harsh conditions, we’ve won 11 of the 12 statewide elections since 2017.

Wisconsin is far from alone. States like Minnesota, Georgia, Michigan, and Colorado all illustrate the possibilities in places where Democratic state parties are a force. With funds, leadership, and effective strategies, state parties can anchor a state’s Democratic ecosystem—which also includes independent groups, such as unions, and candidates’ campaigns—and transform politics up and down the ballot. With a solid infrastructure, individual candidates don’t have to invent every piece of a winning campaign apparatus from whole cloth. They just have to be great candidates—and trust parties and independent groups to do the rest. Parties, unlike independent organizations, can fully coordinate with the candidates’ campaigns—and unlike candidates’ campaigns, parties never go out of existence.

One metaphor that state party chairs often offer is that we build the roads that candidates drive on. Who are the voters a candidate needs to win? The party has the list. Who will knock on those voters’ doors? The party has the volunteers. Who will call and remind those volunteers that they agreed to go from house to house at 3 p.m. this Saturday? The party has the organizers on staff. That infrastructure benefits city council and school board candidates just as it benefits governors and senators (who might have risen from a local school board perch). Candidates might drive different vehicles for different distances on those roads, but they’re the same roads, and it’s the party’s job to smooth the asphalt long before the polls open on Election Day.

Let’s be clear: Even when working in parallel with fully resourced independent groups and great candidate campaigns, Herculean party efforts can’t reliably overcome underlying political math. If 70 percent of an electorate is Republican, Democrats can’t organize and message their way to victory.

Moreover, Democrats generally lack one ingredient for success that plays a huge role in GOP victories: a network of media institutions dedicated to advancing their political fortunes. In Wisconsin, for example, Melinda Eck and her allies get airtime and support from local right-wing talk radio. There are 81 right-wing talk stations across the state. The number of progressive stations in Wisconsin? Three. Far-right media—from Steve Bannon’s War Room show down to its local imitators, with enthusiastic support from Trump—have made it their mission to take over the machinery of election administration. Absent an equivalent media machine, it will take ceaseless organizing by pro-democracy forces to outmaneuver the right.

Party work often flies under the radar. For a particularly bitter example, look at the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s 2016 campaign operation was widely and accurately reported as a hollow, chaotic mess. How, despite this, did he win? One key factor was the patient years of investment and organizing by the Republican National Committee and its partners in state and county parties nationwide. The RNC was led at that time by then-Chair Reince Priebus, who had led Wisconsin’s state Republican Party when Scott Walker, Rebecca Kleefisch (Walker’s lieutenant governor), and Ron Johnson swept into power in 2010. From RNC headquarters, Priebus began investing in state infrastructure far in advance of the Republican primary. By the time Trump formally accepted his nomination in July 2016, the RNC had already been on the ground in Florida registering voters for 19 months. Trump, famously, only had one office in Florida as late as September. Add in offices maintained by the party, however, and the real number was 60, in a statewide infrastructure built steadily over the four preceding years, election to election, that ultimately counted 1,000 staff in that state alone. As political scientists Theda Skocpol and Caroline Tervo document in their collection Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists From the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance, Trump was borne to the White House on the back of intensive organizing by parties and independent groups, far from the glitz and drama of his escalators and megarallies, where the real work of voter mobilization took place—often unanswered by commensurate efforts on the Democratic side.

More recently, the story has been reversed. Years of patient investment and hard party-building work in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona played a critical role in flipping those five states and making Trump a one-term president.

I know the Wisconsin story best. My predecessor as state party chair, Martha Laning, ignited the turnaround in Wisconsin in the wake of the devastating Trump win of 2016. In the months after that body blow, Laning raised the funds to launch a year-round organizing program—and chose a particularly ambitious organizing model: the Obama-style neighbor-to-neighbor model, in which professional organizers recruit and train neighborhood team leaders, who in turn recruit volunteers to talk to voters in their communities.

The neighbor-to-neighbor model has many upsides: Neighborhood teams truly understand their own communities. The teams can live on from election to election, even as staff members come and go. And they can become self-sufficient, so that volunteers are doing work that in other models would require paid staff—in turn freeing up paid organizers to launch additional teams. Over time, it yields more doors knocked per dollar invested than any other approach to organizing, and the quality of the conversations at the door (and thus impact on voters’ behavior) can be considerably higher than less community-centric models.

But it also has two big downsides: It takes time and it takes money. If you wait until after the primary to build the general election campaign, it’s impossible to scale up that kind of infrastructure. The cost of running this model helps explain why it was allowed to wither nationwide after the 2008 and 2012 Obama victories, leaving little on the ground during the GOP surge years of 2010 and 2014. In 2016, the Democratic Party hadn’t built a campaign-in-waiting, and the Clinton presidential campaign didn’t start calling volunteers in Wisconsin until late August. There was no time to build teams.

In contrast, the party organizing program that helped sweep every statewide office in Wisconsin in 2018 (for the first time in more than three decades!) began with a wave of hiring in the early spring of 2017. As with planting a tree, the earlier you sow the seed, the bigger the result. When I was elected chair in June 2019, the organizing program was roaring forward—and my colleagues and I made it our obsession to build it ever further and deeper. I oversaw a national search for an executive director and found Nellie Sires, an organizing legend who had become a professional management trainer for and coach for progressive campaigns and advocacy organizations. Together, we raised and invested millions of dollars on a gamble that, if we built the right kind of program, the presidential nominee would adopt our operation as their ground campaign in the state. The bet paid off. By Election Day in 2020, we had more than 500 staff working to win a state with a population less than a third the size of Florida’s—that, working with hundreds of neighbor-to-neighbor teams, mobilized 30,000 volunteers to generate 30 million voter-contact attempts, an order of magnitude more than the 2016 contact numbers. Trump visited Wisconsin 10 times and built his own massive ground game here, helping drive 15 percent more votes than he’d earned in 2016. On the Democratic side, we drove up turnout by 18 percent relative to 2016—and edged Trump in a 0.6 percent-margin photo finish.

In a race that close, a thousand things have to go right. But it wouldn’t have been possible without four years of continuous organizing.

It also wouldn’t have been possible without a Herculean investment in voter protection—courtesy, in no small part, of Stacey Abrams.

In August 2019, battleground state party chairs gathered at a special session during the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in San Francisco. Lauren Groh-Wargo, who had served as campaign manager for Abrams’s canary-in-a-coal-mine 2018 governor’s race, gave a riveting presentation: The Republicans were going to try suppress their way to victory nationally in 2020, just as they had in Georgia in 2018—and if we wanted to stop them, we had to start now.

Historically, voter protection, like organizing, had been a staffed aspect of campaigns only in the final months. The 2020 election cycle was going to be different. As we left the room, staffers for Fair Fight Action—the group Abrams and Groh-Wargo started in the wake of the 2018 defeat—handed customized folders to each state party chair outlining their proposal for that state party’s voter-protection plan. Abrams and Fair Fight Action would help raise the money, recruit the voter-protection director, train them, and place them in-state starting earlier than ever before.

The partnership with Fair Fight helped Wisconsin Dems set up a program in time for the April 2020 state Supreme Court race that marked the first statewide election of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our team set up a voter-protection hotline; whenever a neighborhood team member found a voter struggling to, for example, find a witness willing to brave the pandemic to watch them fill out their absentee ballot as required by Wisconsin law, they would refer the voter to the hotline, where a trained volunteer would help them identify their best option (what time does the letter carrier come? Would she agree to witness you through the window?).

Voters were terrified, often breaking down on the phone as they weighed impossible choices between their health and their franchise. The voter-protection volunteers were these voters’ lifeline. The VoPro team achieved a 100 percent follow-up rate, engaging with thousands of voters in the three short weeks between the start of Covid lockdowns and Election Day. Through a roller-coaster series of state and national Supreme Court rulings, Republicans beat back a range of Democratic attempts to ease voting in nightmare conditions, helping disqualify 1.8 percent of the absentee ballots cast. But those GOP attacks proved insufficient. An enormous organizing push by both the party and Wisconsin independent groups (documented in the short film Dress Rehearsal) helped unleash a flood of absentee votes that far outstripped Republicans’ efforts to discard them, and the more progressive Supreme Court justice, Jill Karofsky, defeated Trump’s pick in a landslide.

In the months after the April election, our voter-protection team got the process of supporting absentee voters down to a science. If a ballot was at risk of disqualification, for example, the team organized volunteers to call the relevant voter until they traveled to the clerk’s office to correct the error. In the final tally of the November election, the disqualification rate fell to 0.2 percent. Had the absentee ballot rejection rate remained at 1.8 percent, based on our data on the disproportionate share of absentee ballots cast for Biden, Trump would have won Wisconsin.

And then, six weeks after Election Day, Trump’s lawsuit to overturn Wisconsin’s election result reached our state Supreme Court—and Justice Jill Karofsky cast the tie-breaking vote to reject it, 4–3.

It’s critical to underscore that these efforts by the party represent just one piece of the puzzle. Organizing efforts by unions and other independent groups, combined, reached a similar titanic scale—due to years of patient, focused, investment and work, led by an array of brilliant Black, Latino, Hmong, and white organizers spanning Wisconsin’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, as well as on the air and online. Meanwhile, the presidential campaign was, of course, the center of the fight and the most essential element. The Biden campaign dramatically out-invested and out-communicated Trump’s operation in Wisconsin, and—despite a far greater degree of care regarding our state’s massive late-fall Covid outbreak—made critical trips to Wisconsin that dominated headlines. The day after the 2020 election, I wrote about some of the people and organizations involved, including party staff, presidential campaign staff, and independent groups, in a Twitter thread.

Stepping back, the lesson is clear: To win, and to sustain the win, the work must begin early, and never stop.

And now we find ourselves in 2022, with an insurrection-infused backlash rushing toward us.

Seven states in 2020 came down to less than 3 percent margins: Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. (All but North Carolina went for Biden.) In those states, there are six races for governor and six races for Senate in 2022—every single one of them rated as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. The U.S. Senate majority certainly hangs on those races. Moreover, in six of the seven—due to 2010 GOP gerrymandering—Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature. Every one of those states is at risk of continued or new GOP trifecta control following the 2022 contests, which in turn raises the specter of Republicans suppressing their way to victory in 2024, or overturning true results on fraudulent grounds. If we prevent trifectas in enough states to prevent the overturners from stealing their way to 270 Electoral College votes, the GOP’s coup plot falls apart. We can achieve this simply by reelecting the Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Or we can achieve it by winning two of those and adding a Democratic governor in a state like Georgia or Arizona. There are many paths. But those states are key.

If the Democratic Party, looking at the grim electoral outlook of this moment, could go back in time, it would want to invest in the state parties in all of 2020’s closest states.

Fortunately, the Democratic National Committee doesn’t need to go back in time—because, under Chair Jaime Harrison, himself a former state party chair in South Carolina, it has already been investing in each of these states, as well as New Hampshire. One after another, these battlegrounds have made ongoing investments in year-round organizing and year-round voter protection. Moreover, the DNC has ramped up its support for states across the board—which is critical because even in the reddest states, unexpected opportunities present themselves from time to time. Ask former Senator Doug Jones in Alabama, Governor Laura Kelly in Kansas, or Governor Andy Beshear in Kentucky—or look at Biden’s victory in the fight for the Electoral College vote representing Nebraska’s second congressional district. Fortune favors the prepared party. And this effect is magnified dramatically in smaller local elections, where voter turnout is often strikingly low, name recognition is minimal, and basic tactics like yard signs and mailings can produce outsize effects. The work underway in state parties nationwide may be our most critical shield against the far right undermining our democracy.

And yet, if we don’t continue to scale up aggressively, it may not be enough.

Maximizing our chance to win now will require dedicating more money, more talent, and more time to building state party infrastructure, every precious day between now and when the polls close on November 8—and then through the inevitable recounts and court battles that will follow. And if we’re serious about forestalling authoritarianism, we have to invest everywhere—not just in the battlegrounds. And not just this year. For the next decade.

In most of modern memory, the party that loses the presidency turns up the heat, and the party that wins simmers down. This was visible in the groundbreaking 50-state strategy pioneered by then-DNC Chair Howard Dean from 2005 to 2009, which then largely faded from view until Trump was elected and Chair Tom Perez began turning the DNC around, starting in 2017.

Now that pattern may be breaking. Since Trump’s election, both parties have been in an arms race. Republican turnout and energy shot up in 2018 (under Trump) relative to 2014 (under Obama)—but Democratic energy soared yet higher. In 2021, Democratic turnout in Virginia’s governor’s race exploded relative to 2017 (a high-energy year!)—but Republican turnout shot up even further. Both Republican and Democratic Party fundraising is setting national records. The fury among the GOP’s rank and file about their 2020 loss means that it’s simply not enough for Democrats to do more now than we’ve ever done—we have to do more than we think the GOP could ever do.

One gust of wind in Democrats’ sails is the collective recognition, after Senate losses in states like Maine, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina, where money was plentiful—that donating to candidates is simply not enough. The lesson of Georgia in particular pointed toward a better path: 10 years of relentless work by Stacey Abrams and the network of organizations she helped launch, eventually joined by their state party, powered a presidential flip and two Senate runoff victories. Abrams wasn’t on the ballot, but the model of movement-oriented infrastructure-building pointed the way. (Abrams and Groh-Wargo made it explicit in their terrific opinion piece, “How to Turn Your Red State Blue.”) Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s dramatic year in the spotlight helped dramatize the importance of state party infrastructure specifically, as did Michigan’s, where state party Chair Lavora Barnes built, and continues to run, a win-generating machine of spectacular effectiveness and scope.

Melinda Eck and her compatriots will face the voters of Green Bay, Wisconsin, on April 5.

But because the Brown County Democratic Party, supported by organizers on the state party payroll, has never taken its foot off the gas, pro-democracy voters in Green Bay will know exactly how high the stakes will be in that election—and they’ll get reminder after reminder to cast their ballots. In Racine County, Wisconsin, progressive challengers will be vying to win majority control of the county board for the first time in 45 years. In communities like Wausau, Marshfield, Eau Claire, and all over Wisconsin, progressives will battle for control of city councils, mayorships, and other offices that affect election administration, build the bench for higher office, and make day-to-day decisions that affect people’s lives. In every corner of America’s tipping-point state, the battle is joined.

The Democratic Party’s name comes from the Greek term demos—the populace as a political unit. It is literally the Party of the People. It is us. But it only lives up to its name if we energize it by channeling our collective power through its veins. And at this moment in our history, the big-D Democratic Party may be the last, best hope for the survival of small-d democracy. It’s time to roll up our sleeves. It’s time to organize neighbor to neighbor. It’s time to protect voters.

That’s what it really means for us, as patriots, to fight for our freedom.