After suffering crushing losses at the federal and state levels in November’s elections, Democrats in blue states are moving forward with legislative agendas organized largely around responding to President Trump.
Democratic Party leaders in blue states said in interviews over the last several weeks that they would focus on offering an alternative to Trump’s agenda on issues such as workers’ rights, immigration and climate change.
But the territory in which Democrats can make their stand against the new administration is limited. The party controls both chambers of state legislatures in only 15 states. It holds only 16 governorships. And Democrats hold total control — of both the legislature and the governorship — in only six states.
In some states, Democrats hold control by only the narrowest of margins: In Connecticut, Democrats and Republicans hold an equal number of seats in the state Senate, where a tie is broken by the Democratic lieutenant governor. Democrats control Delaware’s state Senate by just one seat, and they hold the Oregon Senate by just four.
Though they lost November’s elections at the federal level, Democrats who acknowledge the bleakness of their political situation say they will set themselves apart from the Trump administration.
“You could call us a bulwark against Trumpism. You could call us a beacon of light in darkness. You could call us a sanctuary for a variety of people who might be otherwise victims of instability that comes out of the White House,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D). “I think all of those things fit.”
Democrats in Western states say they will focus some of their legislative energy on protecting undocumented immigrants who live within their borders, especially after Trump signed executive orders last month cracking down on both immigrants already in the country and those who hope to travel here.
California’s budget includes money to pay for legal representation for undocumented immigrants who might be swept up in federal raids. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) last week ordered state agencies to stop asking about the immigration statuses of those with whom they interact.
Legislative leaders in Oregon, where the party controls all levers of government, and Nevada, where they would send bills to a Republican governor, plan to introduce new pushes to guarantee equal pay and paid family leave. Liberals in Rhode Island’s legislature, where Democrats hold control, have introduced legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
And officials in Washington, Oregon and California are planning new measures to rein in carbon emissions to combat climate change.
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) asked his legislature, where Democrats hold a supermajority of seats, to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program beyond 2020. The program needs an extension, Brown said, to signal that states plan to continue confronting climate change in the face of an unwilling federal government.
“I would think that, given the fact that the federal government seems to be going in the opposite way, that Californians would want to strengthen their commitment,” Brown told reporters last month. “We’re going to respond [to the Trump administration] by continuing our efforts to do what we’re doing and even embrace more efforts as they become available and plausible.”
But while they strive to stay on offense, Democrats acknowledge that much of their time will be taken up in responding to the Trump administration, especially as Congress works to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). All six states controlled fully by Democrats accepted federal money to expand Medicaid under the ACA, potentially putting billions of dollars at risk if Republicans in Congress blow up the program.
In California, ending Medicaid expansion would mean $20 billion in lost federal funds for a state that projects a virtually flat budget this year.
“If we were to try to come up with $20 billion, that would hurt,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) said in an interview.
Early protests against the Trump administration, and Republican efforts to roll back the ACA, give hope to some Democrats that November’s elections were a nadir, not a permanent banishment to the minority.
“There’s a lot of energy in the party right now,” Rendon said. “We need to move really quickly to harness this energy.”
Democratic attorneys general are plotting their own assault on the Trump administration, beginning with Trump’s executive order temporarily barring citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Two Democratic attorneys general, from Washington and Minnesota, filed suit to block the order in court. Fourteen other Democratic attorneys general filed an amicus brief in support of their case. Democrats hope Republicans will maintain their states’ rights position.
“Fortunately in our state, we have an AG who has made it known that he’s willing to sue the federal government for federal overreach. I hope he does exactly the same thing when the Trump administration comes into our state,” said Aaron Ford, the Democratic leader of the Nevada state Senate, referring to Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R). “I’m gong to hold up a states’ rights banner.”
The legal push represents a sea change in the state-federal relationship from the Obama years, when Republican-led states tied up the federal government in court over immigration, environmental and labor rules. Democrats now see their role as partially reactive to new initiatives that come out of the White House.
“We are switching places” with red states, Williamson said. “But with a very different focus.”