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By David Pepper
What played out in Texas in recent days sums up the nightmare brought on by Dobbs in countless states, and faced by millions of women: A woman being forced to endure excruciating delays as she confronts a serious risk to her health and makes the most private of health care decisions, all in the public eye. She’s ultimately forced to leave her own state to exercise her own reproductive choices. Then the highest court declares that even her serious condition is still not enough to meet the health “exception” to Texas’s abortion ban.
Then there’s the horrific certainty of how many women in Texas and other states will find themselves in the same position Kate Cox did, but won’t have a lawyer to press their case, or the means to escape to a state where they can get treatment? We will never even hear their stories.
And remember, all of this is playing out in a state where polls make clear the the ban itself is deeply unpopular, and doesn't reflect the majority of Texans. This is only possible because of a deep subversion of democracy across so much of America.
As the country reacts with outrage to all of this, what’s the long-term goal of the far right?
To keep this high-profile battle going, year after year?
It’s to let this all settle in over time. To have it sink in as the new normal. So that soon, it’s not a fight at all. It’s just the new, accepted reality in so much of America—even when it’s only supported by a minority of the people in those states.
They are counting on time being on their side—that countless stories like Kate Cox’s will soon not make the front pages at all. That the majority of Americans will, over time, simply accept this as our new reality, with nothing to be done to change it.
With an even longer view, they are banking on future generations not remembering or knowing the world as it was before Dobbs. Or the rights they had before Dobbs. So they will accept what just happened in Texas as how the world has always been. And every year that goes by is a year where this all settles in just a little more—where more come of age in a world after Dobbs, so it’s all they’ve ever known, gradually replacing those who came of age in the world of Roe, who remain shocked by it all.
And you know what? That “settling in” phenomenon is a true risk. It happens on matters big and small. Hell, it’s happening right now in all sorts of other ways.
How do we keep it from happening now, especially in states that are trapped in non-democratic conditions like Texas is?
We keep fighting as hard as we can. We refuse to let it settle in. We remind everyone in all these states that these bans reflect a toxic minority viewpoint only locked into place via gerrymandered power—and not what the people support.
How do we do that? We pursue several paths at once, and we never abandon them:
First, whenever we have the opportunity, we enshrine reproductive freedom into federal law. And to get there, we make doing so a centerpiece of every federal campaign that we wage. Put it front and center. Force Republicans to defend at every turn what happened to Kate Cox and the 10-year old rape victim from Ohio. They will try to defend the position, and that may work with some of their constituents. But as Republicans learned in Ohio, and in Kansas, and in Kentucky, these right-wingers will also quickly learn how many even their own party and in their own communities don’t agree with them.
Second, in any state that has a path to enshrine reproductive freedom into its Constitution via direct democracy, we rise up and do this important work. Like our heroic doctors and advocates and activists did in Ohio. Like Michigan. And like others are doing now.
In fact, I write this from Florida, after speaking to a group of activists last night who are in the final stages of gathering signatures to place an amendment enshrining reproductive freedom into Florida’s Constitution for 2024. They’ve already gathered a million signatures. As I told the group, it will be a tough fight. Based on our experience in Ohio, though, I think it’s a winnable fight.
But given the far right’s hope that the new reality simply settles in, it’s an absolutely critical fight we all have an obligation to wage. Because the true loss long term is if there is no fight at all. If the tension ebbs. If we let future generations simply forget the rights Americans had for generations because we stop fighting for those rights in the first place. That is what gives the far right their true victory. That is what allows this new nightmare to settle in as our new reality.
So, states with a direct democracy process, go right to the voters!
Third, even in those states where there is no path to a Constitutional Amendment (and sadly, most states don’t have the process we in Ohio have), we can ensure that this doesn’t settle in as the new normal by running everywhere. By running against every politician who is pushing their extremism on the rest of us.
And right now, it’s safe to say, in too many places, we are not doing so. In fact, as I explain in “Saving Democracy,” the primary author of that Texas abortion ban didn’t even face an opponent in his next election. And he was far from the only one. We are letting too many of these extremists run with no opposition at all—and that too has the effect of letting all that they’re doing settle in as acceptable.
To talk about this critical problem more, I’m sharing an excerpt from “Saving Democracy,” which walks through this common theme of the states careening through downward spirals of extremism:
That’s how the website Ballotpedia phrases it. The “general election. . . was canceled.”
Once you realize that we’re in a battle for democracy itself—and that the front lines of that battle are the very statehouse seats where politicians like Bryan Hughes are spending entire careers advancing extremism unchallenged—you realize that these numbers aren’t just bad. They amount to a crisis, inflicting enormous damage.
Why so bad?
At the heart of a functioning, representative democracy is that voters make the choice. And their collective choice is what legitimizes the government that represents them, and grants it the awesome power to impose laws we all must follow.
That choice also lays at the heart of the role played by the individuals who serve in representative government—people like Bryan Hughes. It legitimizes their exercise of power on behalf of and impacting those he represents, along with the people of the entire state.
But that choice also provides another crucial function when it comes to Bryan Hughes. It constitutes the single most important moment of accountability Hughes and his colleagues encounter as they exercise vast power over their fellow citizens. If the people don’t like what Bryan Hughes is doing, they can choose someone else. And in a healthy representative democracy, the knowledge—and fear—that that may happen is the ultimate check on how Bryan Hughes wields that power. That ultimate accountability is supposed to shape the decisions Bryan Hughes makes, and beyond that, his entire mindset about the role he plays. It’s the one direct link back to the citizenry—the connection that puts the people in charge of their government, and renders them a check on his actions. It’s the link that makes Bryan Hughes and his colleagues public servants in the first place.
All that changes dramatically when the Bryan Hugheses of the world never face that moment of accountability. When that link disappears. Without it—without even a fear of that accountability—that one and only check disappears. Representation essentially ends, and, left unchecked, his exercise of power falls away from being public service. Goals are being served, of course, just not for the broader public. The incentives and priorities go elsewhere. (See Chapter 7 for more).
And when dozens of Bryan Hugheses in individual states face no accountability—when so many don’t even fathom facing accountability for their exercise of power—the entire system breaks down.
Unfortunately, as the state-by-state numbers above make clear, that breakdown is happening rapidly. Hundreds like Bryan Hughes, facing no accountability, impose law after law that do the opposite of what their constituents want, fueling a downward spiral into extremism and corrosion of public service. And once these officials grow accustomed to power with no accountability from the people, a dangerous incentive arises to eliminate accountability going forward. No coincidence, Bryan Hughes and his abortion-banning counterparts also champion voter suppression measures with the same vigor as they do abortion bans.
But lack of accountability and the resulting extremism and corruption of public service are not the only consequences of allowing countless seats to go unchallenged, year after year. And while gerrymandering is obviously a major driver of the problem, not challenging incumbents in gerrymandered districts makes the damage far worse.
First, when hundreds of Bryan Hugheses go unchallenged, entire swaths of states never hear a message from the pro-democracy side of the political battle—at least from anyone locally who voters may know and trust. Like Fox News playing on every television set in town, only one side is even in the conversation. Never hearing a counter-message from folks they know, huge numbers of voters become further removed from the broader and more balanced political conversation happening elsewhere. Just as Bryan Hughes gets more extreme, so do many of his constituents.
Second, turnout suffers. Studies show that funded, local candidates knocking on doors and communicating locally have an appreciable impact on turnout for all candidates. Can you imagine how helpful it would’ve been to Beto Rourke, or Tim Ryan, or Val Demings, if there weren’t so many uncontested districts in Texas, Ohio, or Florida in the years they were running? If they didn’t have to do all that turnout work themselves? That eroded engagement impacts outcomes and erodes democracy.
Third, if you leave Bryan Hughes unchallenged, he doesn’t have to spend a dime defending himself back home. Instead, his and other unchallenged incumbents’ resources get funneled into attacking the handful of Democratic candidates running in swing districts. Politics is a team sport, and when districts go unchallenged, other members of the team directly pay the price. The pro-democracy side suffers as a whole.
What state was the exception to the numbers above—not allowing any Bryan Hugheses to run unchallenged in 2022? Michigan—Democrats there contested every seat. Who had a banner year in 2022? Michigan Democrats—they flipped both chambers and won every statewide office decisively. In 2018, when the Ohio Democratic House Caucus ran a candidate in all ninety-nine Ohio districts, we flipped six swing districts (after not having flipped a single one all decade). In both cases, every incumbent Republican was challenged, forced to defend his or her home turf. As a group, they had to spend their money more broadly. That’s not the only reason Ohio or Michigan Democrats gained seats in those years, but it made a difference.
Fourth, over time, if only one side is running in numerous districts, broad swaths of that state become further and further disconnected from statehouse activity in general. While other political offices may be hotly contested, voters don’t hear a word about their statehouse. This only heightens the lack of awareness and accountability for statehouse activity, accelerating the decline from a functioning democracy in the very place where most of our democracy is shaped. Or undermined.
Finally, but crucially, if you don’t run everywhere within a state, you are depriving yourself of victories you will never otherwise know about. As those referenda in Kansas and Kentucky showed, the extremism in these and other states is far out of touch with their voters. The corruption in these places is gobsmacking. All this creates political opportunity, but you can only take advantage of that if you run everywhere.
In other words, you never know where your next Kansas victory might be if you don’t even contest Kansas.
Bottom line: our new normal must be to field candidates in every state legislative district in every state in every election, and to provide enough support so that these candidates can run a basic campaign and get a message out.
By doing so, you negate some of the damage above. Statehouse incumbents feel some level of accountability. All parts of a state hear the message from the pro-democracy side (and that side is now listening to every part of the state). Turnout and engagement rise. And awareness builds on what that statehouse is doing. And as we saw in Kansas, in some places, you can win outright.
And if you’re doing all this with a long game mindset, year after year, the benefits only compound as you go.
For more on ways to do this, go HERE. And know that deadlines in most states to run for office are quickly coming up.
For far more on all this, check out my book “Saving Democracy.”