Here's how progressive policies are actually winning big in red states — from Oklahoma to Nebraska

Here's how progressive policies are actually winning big in red states — from Oklahoma to Nebraska
Photo via Shutterstock.

The United States isn't as divided as it seems.

Sounds ridiculous, right? After all, the fierce political warfare in Washington, gerrymandering in state governments, and unhinged conspiracy-fueled right-wing terror attacks happening throughout the country all suggest the very opposite. But for the most part, those are symptoms of partisanship, not division on policy. And while COVID-19 has become absurdly politicized, turning urgent public health measures into the stuff of controversy, the reality is that most Americans actually agree on bedrock principles of fairness and policies that help to guarantee it.

As I've noted over the past few years, ballot initiatives to implement progressive policies have been passing with huge majorities in even the reddest of red states. In 2018, voters in very red states chose to increase the minimum wage (in Arkansas and Missouri), approved Medicaid expansions (Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah), return voting rights to former felons (Florida), and enact paid sick leave (Texas). Last year, while many ballot initiatives had to be pushed off due to the virus's impact on signature collection, there was still an impressive number of wins, including Medicaid expansion (Oklahoma and Missouri) and recreational and/or medical marijuana legalization (Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and Mississippi). Even more initiatives passed in swing states and blue states like Colorado and New Jersey.

Credit for these victories is somewhat diffuse, spread between a constellation of progressive organizations and advocacy groups both in the states where the policies passed and Washington, DC. But look closely and you'll find that one group in particular is quite consistently involved in the headline progressive ballot initiative victories: The Fairness Project has now plotted out and fought to pass 21 progressive policy initiatives, winning all but one of their elections.

I spoke with Jonathan Schleifer, the Executive Director of The Fairness Project, earlier this month to discuss the organization's work (which we supported in 2018, as well). I wanted to know how they've been able to pass progressive policies that are core parts of a Democratic agenda in red states where the party's brand was pretty tarnished, how Democrats might be able to learn from their success, and how they combat increasing Republican interference in their work.

There were far fewer initiatives in 2020 due to the virus making signature collecting so difficult. How did that impact your 2020 campaigns?

We were working on a minimum wage initiative in Ohio and Idaho, so those two really came off the tracks. We did not want to be responsible for putting people in danger. But thankfully, our Nebraska predatory lending, our Colorado paid family and medical leave, and our Missouri and Oklahoma Medicaid expansion initiatives all had either gone far enough through signature collection or were already qualified by the time COVID shut things down.

You won in very red places — how much does not being attached to a particular candidate, who might espouse the same ideas but have a D next to their name, help in these places?

It's useful to not have a candidate and to not have a party affiliation when you're trying to pass these progressive policies in red states for sure, but it makes it very hard to raise money, so that's the trade-off. But it's why we were able to win Medicaid expansion in Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma. We're working on it in South Dakota and Mississippi in 2022. The reason we can expand Obamacare in those states is that we are able to keep it nonpartisan.

So if there's that large buy-in there, how do opponents still work against it?

I think they do the opposite — they try to make it partisan. In Missouri, we saw this really grotesque example, where the opposition had a paid mailpiece that had a picture of a brown-skinned man wearing a mask that was a flag of Mexico. And it basically said, "if we expand Medicaid in Missouri, we're going to be providing healthcare to illegal immigrants." Thankfully they lost, but I think what they try to do is play the normal political game, which to divide and make it partisan. Whereas we try to make sure that everyone understands that this is in the best interest of people. We're prepared for it and are ready to respond.

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How do horrible attacks like that work against Democrats, but not the policy itself?

We build a really broad coalition. In Idaho, we had Reclaim Idaho at the table with us — they're the left-leaning group. And then we also have the Chamber there, this group called IACI. And so one way to keep it from being labeled as partisan is to keep it from being partisan. It's not just a rhetorical device, it's also something we do in practice.

When we pull the table together, we really emphasize that all the different groups have other priorities and other interests. But we asked him to leave that aside, as well, so we can focus on this North Star of passing a ballot initiative that's going to change people's lives.


So obviously progressive Democrats aren't going to get industry lobbying groups on their side, at least for the most part. But as we saw in Georgia, actually making tangible promises — in that case, $2000 checks — seemed to work. So what lessons can be drawn even without that wider buy-in?

I think the question that we're posing to the folks when we run ballot initiatives is not "do you want to support an individual and all of their all the complexity that comes with an individual?" and "do you want to choose between Democrats and Republicans, all values that come with party affiliation?" We're just asking some pretty fundamental questions like, "do you want to raise wages for your neighbors? Do you want to provide health care for those who need it most? Do you want to provide paid leave for yourself or for the person who is going to wait on you at the grocery store?"

A lot of these questions that we ask on our ballot initiatives were pushed to the forefront because of COVID. This population of people who had formerly been invisible — frontline workers, essential workers — are now being described as heroes. And as a result, we were asking what do they need? And people were surprised that they're underpaid, that they don't have the normal protections that a lot of workers have, even though drive Americans don't have a lot of those protections. So you can never have a candidate who's as pure as that question.

But I do think there's an opportunity for the party, as well as for individual candidates, to really recognize the fundamental role that we can play in people's lives, which is to actively try to improve them by making policy and making change. By not necessarily getting caught up in the political dynamics of the moment but really investing in a politics of service and a politics of impact, by articulating the set of problems that people are facing in their lives and articulating a very clear set of solutions and choices to get there — and articulating that it all starts with voting for the candidate who's on the ticket.

After Floridians voted to re-enfranchise 1.4 million people in 2018, the legislature and governor there just neutered the whole thing with a really cynical implementation. Legislatures in states where Medicaid expansion passed have fought against enacting and funding it as required, while some Republican-held state governments are either suing to overturn marijuana legalization initiatives or just not funding implementation. How do you deal with that increasing resistance to democracy?

Opponents of progress are actively trying to make it as hard as possible for us to get on the ballot, because they know that it's one of the last remaining levers of power that regular people have that doesn't rely on the Democratic Party. The stakeholders who have grown incredibly accustomed to controlling everything, they want to relieve us of this one tool for change and they're doing so by relying on their lawyers and their lobbyists to make it as hard as possible for us to get on the ballot.

We see this most profoundly around payday lending, where there's an industry that but for the fact that that they've owned both Democrats and Republicans in state legislators and in DC, shouldn't really exist. There shouldn't be an industry that is able to charge 300% to 600% interest on loans to low wage workers. Of course, they all went out and applied for PPE loans and were getting 0% interest loans from the government as they were offering people 600% interest loans.

So they know that they cannot win with voters, so when we put payday lending restrictions on the ballot, voters come out in incredible numbers. It was 83% in Nebraska that supported limiting predatory lending in their state [Editor's note: It capped max interest rates, which averaged 404% in the state, to 36%]. So what they do is they try to keep us off the ballot.

In Nebraska they sued three times to keep us off the ballot, even claiming that we shouldn't be allowed to call them payday lenders, because they thought it created a stigma against their industry. But that is in fact what they do. If you're in a business where it's being called the thing that you do, and that's something that you need to fight, you might want to rethink the industry you're in. If you euthanize dogs and don't want to be called a dog murderer, then maybe you should get out of that.

I bring all this up as a way to speak to the work that is being done at three levels because they can't win with voters on these issues. They try to make it harder to get on the ballot, and we're seeing that consistently across the board, with state legislatures trying to just make it harder and more expensive to get on the ballot. The second thing they do is once as we are on the ballot, they try to kick us off by suing us in the courts. Again, they're leveraging their lawyers and lobbyists, which is how they express their power because they don't want voters to express their power. And then the last thing is that they then undermine the implementation and execution of the initiatives.

Which is maybe the most enraging thing, since it totally throws out the will of the voters.

In Utah, The Fairness Project spent an additional $400,000 on a campaign of accountability after we had already won Medicaid expansion. They're holding the governor and the legislature accountable, as they tried to repeal and replace the initiative that voters supported and passed with over 53% of the vote. An organization, we don't go away just because we've won. I'm proud of the fact that we won 20 to 21 campaigns, but the thing that motivates us and inspires our work is not the tick mark in the W column. It's the fact that we actually change people's lives. And if we do it, and then the policy doesn't get executed and implemented, that's not a win for us.

So we stick around when necessary and help use the resources that we've accumulated during the campaign. So in Utah, for example, we're doing this accountability work and we were able to keep the campaign apparatus — the email lists, the social media, the volunteer base — and translate that from campaigning for expansion to accountability work. And now in Missouri and Oklahoma, we're like working with an even more expanded coalition to ensure that the Medicaid expansion gets implemented there.

The organization is still early into considering and forming its 2022 slate of initiatives, and some will depend on how much Democrats in DC get done, but undoubtedly, they'll be pushing some important issues in hard-to-win states.

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