‘We use what tools we have’: Democrats take drastic action in bid to resist Republican rule

When a group of Texas Democratic legislators fled their state this month to prevent Republicans from enacting controversial voting restrictions, the incident became somewhat of a Rorschach test for lawmakers in Washington.

While Democrats praised the state legislators’ flight as a bold and righteous protest against voter suppression, Republicans mocked the group for trying to turn a “joyride on private planes” into a moral crusade.

But one thing seemed clear to members of both parties: the Texas Democrats’ abrupt departure was their last remaining option if they wanted to prevent – or at least delay – the passage of the voting restrictions in a state run by Republicans.

Across the US, state-level Democrats face similar power dynamics to Texas – where Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature. Republicans enjoy a similar legislative advantage in 22 other US states, which has forced Democrats in those states to get creative when it comes to pushing back against what they view as an increasingly radical conservative agenda.

State Democratic party leaders across the US said they felt inspired by the Texas legislators’ drastic action and that it showed what they could still do to resist the rise of rightwing power in red state America, despite being politically outgunned in their home states.

“I don’t think it’s an easy decision, but I think that the issue calls for this difficult action,” said Raquel Terán, the chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic party. “The lesson is that we are elected to fight for our communities to make sure that our stories are carried on in the state legislature, and we have to use our platform in any way, shape or form.”

Chris England, a state legislator who serves as chairman of the Alabama Democratic party, agreed that the Texas Democrats’ flight was “absolutely necessary”.

“When you don’t have the numbers, you’ve got to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make sure that you’re fighting and protecting your constituency,” England said.

Alabama Democrats are actually in a worse legislative position than their Texas counterparts. Republicans have a supermajority in the Alabama legislature, meaning they can form a quorum and advance legislation without any Democratic assistance. England and his colleagues have instead had to deploy other measures to push back against Republican bills.

When Alabama Republicans proposed their own set of voting restrictions earlier this year, Democrats launched a filibuster to try to block the bill from going into effect. The filibuster ultimately failed, but such tactics show Democrats’ commitment to protecting voting rights, England argued.

“We generally use whatever tools we have, whether it be to engage in filibusters or try good-faith efforts to negotiate some of the worst parts of the bad bills out,” England said. “I guess the best way to put it is: we do the best we can to put lipstick on a pig.”

Although their flight to DC has attracted the most attention, Texas Democrats say that their decision to leave the state is only one part of a multi-tiered strategy to resist Republicans’ legislative agenda.

“It shows Texans that Democrats are fighting for them,” said Luke Warford, the chief strategy officer of the Texas Democratic Party. “When it comes to electoral outcomes, that is going to translate into voters going to the polls and voting for people who they think have their backs.”

In that sense, the Texas Democrats’ flight to DC fits into the party’s longer-term efforts to flip more state legislative seats and eventually take the majority, giving them the power to block proposals like the voting restrictions that pushed them to leave Austin.

“This is drawing national attention and national media and interest, and so it’s going to result in an increased amount of resources coming into the Democratic space in Texas,” Warford said. “I think that that’s going to benefit the party and benefit candidates up and down the ballot.”

But Warford argued that the ultimate response to Republicans’ efforts in the state legislatures lies in voter registration. The Texas Democratic Party has launched an initiative called “Project Texas,” which targets 2 million eligible Texans who are not yet registered. The project is in a pilot phase right now, testing out the best methods for mass voter registration before it launches on a larger scale in 2022.

“When you look at what has happened in the Texas legislature this year, the clearest takeaway is that Democrats need to win more elections, and voter registration is a critical piece of that pie for us,” Warford said.

Arizona Democrats have pursued a similar strategy, launching a permanent statewide organizing program next month. “Project 15/30,” which references the 15 counties and 30 legislative districts in Arizona, is meant to help Democrats build year-round relationships with voters, with an eye toward eventually flipping control of the state legislature.

Democrats have come very close to that goal in Arizona, where Republicans hold two-seat majorities in both the House and the Senate. Arizona Democrats had hoped to take the majority with last year’s elections, but they fell short.

“We cannot miss a beat from last election to this election,” Terán said. “We’re ready. We’re ready for next year. Nothing’s ever easy, but we are committed to engaging our Democratic base.”

But for England, the goal of Democrats taking control of the state legislature is not all that realistic. In 2020, Donald Trump won Alabama by about 25 points, giving Democrats little hope of a blue wave sweeping the state.

For that reason, England believes that the most effective response to Republican voting restrictions is national legislation. During their time in Washington, Texas Democrats have similarly been pushing the Senate to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which remain stalled because of a Republican filibuster.

“Every state that continues to propose restrictive legislation like that, it just becomes another example of why Congress needs to step in,” England said. “I think it’s obvious at this point that the only answer that we have in order to set a standard and stop the proliferation of these restrictive voting rights bills is for the federal government to step in and pass a law.”

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