The 50-State Strategy

Remember Howard Dean’s introduction of the 50-state strategy? Dean insisted that Democrats needed to contest seats in every single state–even in states like Indiana, where gerrymandering has given the GOP a vise-like, if arguably illegitimate, hold on governance.

Dean was right.

In a recent Substack newsletter, Robert Hubbell quoted a woman named Jess Piper, who had taken that advice to heart, and had run in a Missouri state legislative race. In 2022, approximately 44% of the Missouri state legislative races had been uncontested, i.e., no Democratic candidate. Jess decided to run for the state’s legislature in District 22 .

Hubbell quoted Piper’s analysis about that experience.

I did not win. I got my butt kicked by a man who is very nice, but who ran on two issues: making sure his grandkids had access to guns and making sure they didn’t have to eat plant-based, meat-substitute burgers. I’m not kidding…here is an article.

But Piper definitely did not consider the experience to have been a waste of time and money. Far from it.

So what did happen? I made the GOP nominee spend money. I made him show up to town halls and forums to debate me. I made him knock doors. I made him call voters. I made him talk about abortion and school funding and roads and hospitals when all he wanted to talk about was Hunter Biden’s laptop and COVID masking.

I knew my chances, but by God I knew I was going to make my opponent work for the seat rather than just handing him an uncontested victory and a trip to Jefferson City. I didn’t relent and he couldn’t avoid talking about the things that matter.

And there’s this: what happens when you make the GOP spend money in a mostly Republican voting district? They can’t spend it chipping away at mostly Democratic voting districts. The GOP has to drop money into rural races that they haven’t had to think about for decades.

As Hubbell went on to point out, Jess’s run for office was equal parts offense and defense. “Her chances of success were long, but the fact that she put up a fight may have helped a Democrat in another district win. The importance of that fact cannot be overstated.”

What too many Democrats in Red states overlook is that the absence of a contest–for city council, for the state legislature, for other local races–is an incredibly effective vote suppressor. I have previously shared a conversation I had with a graduate student a few years ago; an election was coming up, and I did my usual “sermonizing” about the importance of voting. I asked for a show of hands–how many of you are registered? How many of you will definitely vote? Then one of my better students raised his hand. “Professor, I’ve always voted, but I now live in Noblesville. I went online to confirm that my polling place hadn’t changed, and then I looked at the ballot. There are no contested races. Why should I vote?”

In his small, Red town, no one had bothered to be a Jess Piper, so there was no incentive for Democrats–or for that matter, Republicans– to turn out.

An analysis of Indiana’s politics suggests that if turnout increased substantially in supposedly “safe” districts, some number of those districts wouldn’t be safe. The process of gerrymandering, after all, relies on previous turnout figures. Add to that the fact that rural areas–at least in Indiana–are rapidly losing population, and many progressive urban folks are moving to small towns that are effectively suburbs of Indianapolis, like Danville and Noblesville.

For too many years, Indiana’s Democrats–like those in Missouri– have given up in advance. Legislative districts are left uncontested, and Democratic campaign contributions are sent to candidates in other states, where the donor thinks there’s a better chance of that candidate winning.

It’s a self-defeating attitude and it creates a reinforcing cycle of negativity.

In his newsletter, Hubbell also gave a shout-out to a group called Every State Blue. The organization’s website underscores the message:

When we don’t run and support Democrats, the people living in those districts feel abandoned, ignored… forgotten. Meanwhile, GOP nominees get free passes.

Every State Blue knows there’s a better way. Working together, we can show up, make sure no Democrat is left behind … no voter is left without a choice … and no Republican gets a free ride.

When the only races being contested are the ones the party pooh-bas think there’s a chance of winning, Democrats have already lost. Worse, they’ve defeated themselves.


  1. I agree. We should talk to everyone. We should ask everyone for their vote. Howard Dean was right then as now.

  2. Exactly! One-third of the Indiana General Assembly are holding uncontested seats. Often uncontested even in the primaries. Running for office is difficult. Living with a super-majority is worse. Cancel some of the streaming services and do something for others by getting involved in politics. It’s something I just started to do and am embarrassed I did not do earlier. (Sheila got me into this, but don’t tell her I said so.)

  3. Here’s a story from the NY Times.

    Marilyn Lands, a Democrat, won a special election Tuesday for a State House seat in Alabama after campaigning on access to abortion and in vitro fertilization, underscoring the continued political potency of reproductive rights.

    Ms. Lands defeated her Republican opponent, Teddy Powell, by about 25 percentage points — an extraordinary margin in a swing district where she lost by seven points in 2022. The special election was called when David Cole, the Republican who had held the seat, resigned and pleaded guilty to voter fraud.

  4. Thanks, Sheila – so many good points, especially the one about not giving Republicans a free ride. It was important to hear about how Jess Piper made her opponent work for his seat by answering questions and actually talk about substantive issues rather than spewing slogans. Will support Every State Blue and the All 50 States strategy.

  5. This is a good time to remind folks that state-wide offices cannot be gerrymandered. Indiana ranks 50th out of 51 for voter turnout. If we change that statistic we can at least win those offices. That would really begin to turn the tide.

  6. Yes. Fifty states. We saw what a non-fifty state campaign did to us in 2016 when Debbie Schultz, then chair of the DNC, decided to not campaign in “sure” states like Wisconsin. By not campaigning, Democratic voters thought the election was in the bag. Oops. What that non-fifty states campaign did was aid the 90 million voters who stayed home. The result: The most despicable wretched human being on earth was “elected” President.

    That “experience” should be enough of a lesson to everyone.

  7. A fantastic strategy and a great blog….BUT, unfortunately the national DEM party does not have that focus. Proof? Check out the many, many races in DEM favored races where multiple candidates are running in the primaries, usually “progressive” v/s moderate. That’s where the money and energy go…

  8. Morton has my vote!

    A few people have touched on the National Democratic Party – DNC not supporting elections in the Red States. I know the local Democrat who ran against Gregg Pence. She got no support from the national or state party. Nothing. Gregg didn’t even show up at forums or debates. He didn’t have to because his district was grossly gerrymandered. He knew from the registered voters that he’d win just by showing up.

    As far as I know, the Federal and State parties are responsible for elections. I have no idea who runs the Indiana Democratic Party. He/she has zero presence in the state. They don’t even try to make themselves known. As a result, the local Democratic Party has NO leadership either. Every election cycle is a last-minute scamper to get their shit together, and then voters don’t bother showing up. It takes planning, but we don’t have that at the local or state level.

    With GenocideJoe on the ballot, it will be interesting to see what voter turnout we get this year.

  9. My Uncle who was the Dean of the Business School in Alabama said the same thing. He was a solid D but admitted in his book that the Dem party in Alabama abandoned him and he had to pick a R for a seat that was uncontested. We must try to run Ds so that we have someone to vote for. How can we turn these states around if we don’t run candidates, serious candidates, for local and state offices. We must fight back. We must!

  10. In my neighborhood, there wasn’t even a Democratic primary this year, because there wasn’t any competition for the election. One thing I will say is that the Republicans will make sure there’s a Democratic candidate, because, if there isn’t, everyone can vote in the primary for or against them.

  11. Democrats can make Republicans work for their bread in gerrymandered districts, i.e., by forcing them to discuss the real rather than the manufactured issues of the day. I have labeled Sheila’s graduate student’s voting attitude one of “despair” and a killer of state-wide candidates. Our task while awaiting a hoped-for “50-state response” by the powers that be is to persuade those such as her graduate -student and others to vote irrespective of their gerrymander despair in order to elect sane candidates to office rather than a Braun or other slogan-spouting gerrymander-dependent to office, and especially this election year, since we have the best Big Three candidates (Governor, Senator and AG) we have had in many a moon.

    We might find that Indiana is a purple state (as Obama proved in 2008) and a red state only by reason of the gerrymander/despair effect and lack of organizational resources by the DNC. Consider history: In 1936 FDR carried 46 of the then existing 48 states, losing only Vermont and Maine, both now dependable Democratic-voting states. What brought that about? Statehouses. If we clean up the statehouses (where the gerrymander flourishes among the supermajority) we can end voter despair and pull a Maine and Vermont the old fashioned way, i.e., VOTING EN MASSE.

  12. Yes, the 50 state strategy makes sense but it must be based on organic growth within a state or congressional district. Democrats in Indiana can’t wait for or rely on $s from ‘national’. Why should the DNC spend $s on Marc Carmichael instead of, say, Sherrod Brown in Ohio? They’ll do so only if Carmichael is able to raise $s, attract volunteers for the campaign and show that he’s truly competitive.

  13. Karen Whitney is running as a Dem for District 28 Indiana State Rep for the very reasons discussed in this article. Hats off to Karen. She is putting herself out there and running a great campaign.

  14. Agree, BUT . . . Democrats also need to run stronger campaigns at the top. Over the past 8 years, the Democratic campaigns for Governor and Senator (as well as other statewide offices) have largely been pathetic. I hope 2024 is different.

  15. Amen! In 1982, my mother (Republican at the time) ran for State Rep in a heavily gerrymandered part of southern Indiana against a Democrat who had a reputation for being corrupt. She or I knocked on nearly every door in the district. She did not win but she pulled 49% of the vote in an area where there were hardly any Republicans. Needless to say, the Democrats got scared and primaried the guy in the next election.

    Mom did not stay a Republican. There was a long period of growing disenchantment but Trump’s nomination was the straw the broke the camel’s back. When that happened, she switched parties.

  16. Amen! My mom ran against a corrupt state rep in 1982 in a district she could not win but it forced the opposing party to primary her opponent in the next election.

  17. So, what would you do if you lived in a district where the GOP starts with a 15 point or more advantage and someone like MTG were running against someone like Adam Kitzinger in the primary? Not vote?

  18. “When we don’t run and support Democrats, the people living in those districts feel abandoned, ignored… forgotten. Meanwhile, GOP nominees get free passes.”
    Just right, good choice to give your followers, Sheila. My grandson is running, as a Democrat, in a very, very red district in Michigan, for the reason quoted here and to raise issues, and suggest solutions to problems identified by those he canvasses and meets with in a variety of settings….. He doesn’t expect to win but he does expect to get some folks thinking (again).

  19. If you do more than vote (i.e. volunteer and/or donate) consider supporting some of the down ballot races. A challenge is much more effective if volunteers and small dollar donors support the candidate. Your $5 or $10 donation will yield more value to a municipal or county campaign than to a top of the ballot race.

    I got beat pretty handily in my last race, but I would not have done as well without the support of others to help spread the message.

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