The Democrats Whose 2020 Goal Is Grander Than the Presidency

Future Now wants to build the next progressive era in American politics—starting in the states.

Daniel Squadron, a co-founder of Future Now, and the Maine State House. His group helped flip the Maine legislature Democratic in 2018.
Daniel Squadron, a co-founder of Future Now, and the Maine State House. His group helped flip the Maine legislature Democratic in 2018. (a katz / Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock / The Atlantic)

BROOKLYN—The 10-person team plotting the next progressive era in American politics is crammed into a small, top-floor WeWork suite near the borough’s waterfront.

The group’s name, Future Now, is as generic as its glass-enclosed work space, surrounded by the start-ups, freelancers, free coffee, beer tap, and networking events that define the co-working experience. Exactly one block away is the building that housed the campaign headquarters of Hillary Clinton, whose defeat in 2016 inspired the launch of Future Now and so many like-minded organizations dedicated to harnessing the fear and anger of the activist left.

But you won’t hear much presidential talk from the crew at Future Now, even as the Democratic Party’s energy, operatives, and dollars flow into the free-for-all primary to oust Donald Trump. Future Now was inspired by Trump, but its goal isn’t—in and of itself—to defeat him. If anything, the organization’s entire raison d’être is to break the Democratic Party’s obsession with the presidency and redirect its focus back to the places where, Future Now’s founders argue, conservatives have amassed their most durable power: state legislatures.

“I don’t think this is a crisis that was created by Donald Trump, and I don’t think it’s solved by beating him. I think that he is a reflection of a really broken politics,” one of the co-founders, former State Senator Daniel Squadron of New York, told me. “State legislatures are the most important part of American civic life that’s been forgotten, except by the worst elements of politics and vested special interests. We have decided to focus all of our energy on the least glamorous, often most frustrating part of politics.”

Squadron is hardly the first Democrat to respond to the shock of Trump’s win by suddenly singing the gospel of the states. Indeed, so many state-focused national organizations sprang up in the aftermath of 2016 that a leader of one of them told me the bumper crop is “confusing to the donor community.” In addition to Future Now, there’s Flippable, Sister District, and Forward Majority—all dedicated in one fashion or another to winning state legislative chambers for Democrats. Most of the groups are making an aggressive play for statehouses in 2020 because it’s the last chance for Democrats to win the ability to control the post-census redistricting process in many states.

But Future Now has the grandest ambitions of them all. Combining both a political-action committee, Future Now Fund, and an advocacy group, it strives not only to help progressive candidates win elections, but also to enact, in as many states as possible, a specific and far-reaching policy agenda by 2030. By writing, tracking, and pushing model progressive legislation, Future Now is openly positioning itself as a counterweight to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the conservative behemoth credited with steering bills through state legislatures that have slashed taxes and reduced government spending for the past four decades.

Together, the progressive state-focused groups can claim credit for helping Democrats flip a total of seven chambers in 2018 and make gains in more than a dozen others, including in blue states where the party secured supermajorities and red states where it dented the Republican advantage. After raising and spending about $5 million to help flip legislative chambers in two states—Maine and New Hampshire—and bring Democrats close to a majority in three others, Future Now’s campaign arm plans to expand its targets to 15 states and more than double its spending over the next two years.

Yet drawing donors’ attention to statehouses next year will be even tougher for all the state-centric start-ups, who will be competing not only with one another but also with the 18-and-counting Democratic presidential candidates for the support of donors whose wallets gravitate every four years to the White House. Already, progressive activists focused on the states have warned that Democratic performance in state legislative special elections, though still strong, has slipped this year compared with 2017 and 2018.

Alyssa Cass, Future Now’s political director, told me that after the 2018 elections, she saw other groups that were dedicated to state governments “immediately start pivoting and messaging back toward Congress and the presidential election.”

“It’s like Memento,” Cass said. “It’s all back to what it was before.”

Selling people on the importance of state governments should not be particularly hard.

Congress isn’t passing laws to restrict access to abortion. States such as Mississippi, Georgia, and Kentucky are. Congress isn’t taking major action on guns—either to tighten limits on their use or to loosen them. State governments are. Nor is Congress likely to raise the minimum wage, enact paid family leave, legalize recreational marijuana, or spend heavily on an infrastructure plan anytime soon. All of those progressive goals have advanced in various state legislatures and are within reach in several more.

And even when Congress has passed far-reaching legislation, it’s often modeled on bills enacted in the states. The Affordable Care Act has similarities to the health law that former Governor Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts, and the bipartisan First Step Act, which passed Congress last year, was inspired by a collection of states that had tackled criminal-justice reform.

Slowly but surely, Democrats say, the importance of state and local government is dawning on progressive activists and voters who have a well-earned reputation for putting all their hopes, dreams, and money into presidential campaigns. They’re “realizing maybe all the noise is coming from Washington, D.C., but the policy is coming from their backyard,” said Christine Greig, the minority leader of the Michigan House of Representatives.

Michigan is one of the states where Democrats began to claw back power in 2018. They won the governorship, and Greig credited Future Now Fund’s spending with helping Democrats pick up a net five seats in the state House of Representatives. The gains narrowed the GOP majority to 58–52, putting control of the chamber in reach for Democrats in 2020.

From 1992 to 2012, Michigan voted Democratic in the presidential race for six consecutive elections, giving it the appearance of a blue state before Clinton famously let its 16 electoral votes slip away to Trump in the closing days of the 2016 campaign. But the state government had fallen to Republicans six years earlier: The GOP had recaptured both the governor’s office and the state House from Democrats, and it had extended its majority in the state Senate to a supermajority. The victories allowed Republicans not only to enact conservative policies, but also to control the redistricting process after the 2010 census, which helped lock in their gains at the legislative level for the next decade.

“We were not paying attention to what was going on right underneath our noses,” Greig told me.

The Michigan story was replicated all over the country on Election Night 2010, which Democratic operatives now identify as every bit the historical inflection point that Trump’s victory was in 2016. The national focus had been on Congress, where a red wave swept Democrats out of power in the House, breaking their trifecta in Washington and ending President Barack Obama’s chances of signing major progressive legislation for the remainder of his tenure. Only in the aftermath did most Democrats fully appreciate how bad the bloodbath had been in the states—and what it would portend in the years to come.

After two consecutive national drubbings of their own, in 2006 and 2008, Republican activists poured resources into the states with the goal of winning back power in 2010, the all-important census year. “They had a moment of reckoning, and they correctly realized that spending a lot of money on these state legislative races was a great way to make a long-term difference for their party,” said Carolyn Fiddler, a former spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “For whatever reason, their donors were very receptive to this message. Maybe they just got so tired of being shut out.”

Fiddler saw it all happening in real time from her former perch at the DLCC, which is the party’s official organization dedicated to winning state legislative power. At the time, it had little help from outside groups or the national party. “By the time DLCC realized how difficult it was going to be, everyone’s house was on fire,” recalled Fiddler, now the political editor of Daily Kos. “I will always describe Election Night 2010 as the longest night of my life, just watching those chambers fall one after one and knowing what that meant for Congress and state legislatures for the next 10 years. I had never felt anything like it.”

As for 2020, Fiddler told me, “Democrats do run the risk of being distracted by the big shiny object.”

Even in a sea of newcomers, Future Now is a relative newcomer. It wasn’t until August 2017 that Squadron abruptly resigned the New York state Senate seat he’d held comfortably for nine years to start Future Now along with Adam Pritzker, an entrepreneur and a scion of the family that built the Hyatt hotel chain, and the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. “It felt like the best thing I could do in a crisis,” Squadron, 39, told me as we sat in the room-within-a-room that passes for his semiprivate office in the WeWork suite.

The new groups, though different in structure and focus, offer variations on the same pitch: State legislative elections are cheap, so a relatively modest amount of money, smartly allocated, could make an outsize political difference. The idea was also a way to pool resources from small Democratic donors in deep-blue states whose contributions would be wasted in their home districts.

“It seemed like really low-hanging fruit,” said Pritzker, noting that a state legislative race, at about $150,000, costs as little as one-tenth of the amount of a competitive U.S. House race. “It’s cheaper to win an entire majority in a state legislative chamber than a single congressional seat.”

Like some of the other new state-centric groups, Future Now Fund picks states and races where targeted spending can go the furthest. In 2017–18, it invested in just six states, but it’s expanding its map significantly over the next two years. New targets include the traditionally Republican bastions of Texas, Kansas, Mississippi, and Alaska, where Democrats hope to break GOP supermajorities, if not win outright control.

Future Now Fund scored its first victory of 2019 last month, when its endorsed Democratic candidate won a special state legislative election in Pennsylvania in a district Trump had carried. In the early months of this year, Republicans had flipped four Democratic state legislative seats in special elections elsewhere. “We were worried that the winds were turning again,” Squadron wrote in an email to supporters in March.

Squadron and his colleagues have tried to set Future Now apart from its competitors by emphasizing that while the 2020 election is important because of its impact on redistricting, the group’s goal is not limited to empowering Democrats to tackle GOP gerrymandering. And whereas most national groups targeting state governments have chosen to focus on either campaigns or policy, Future Now operates as both a campaign organization—Future Now Fund—and an issue-advocacy group that helps legislators draft and pass legislation under the rubric America’s Goals. Nearly 500 state lawmakers have pledged their support for the agenda, which is organized under seven issue areas that, while technically nonpartisan, amount to a comprehensive progressive wish list.

In that way, Squadron envisions Future Now as the progressive answer to ALEC, the advocacy group started by a small team of conservative activists in 1973 that has grown into the largest and most influential state-focused organization in the country. To Future Now, ALEC is both bogeyman and inspiring success story, a proof of concept. “We didn’t invent this wheel,” Cass told me. “Republicans succeeded in taking over state legislatures through dogged strategic investments.” Future Now has adopted ALEC’s method of drafting model bills that legislators across the country can introduce, nearly untouched, in their own states.

Though that method has drawn criticism for its secrecy—ALEC was the subject of a recent investigation by USA Today and the Arizona Republic that detailed the extensive influence of lobbyists and corporations in the bill-writing process—Squadron told me that the use of model legislation wasn’t the problem. “The idea that state legislatures are under-resourced, that state legislators are part-time, and there’s just not enough state legislative staff, and therefore you need some national partnership in order for in-state lawmakers to figure out what’s best for their state—there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “What’s wrong with that is when the partnership has an insidious, secretive, corrupt goal.”

Squadron said Future Now’s transparency would set it apart from ALEC: Its policy agenda, America’s Goals, is there for all to see, and it will put all of its model legislation online. The website will also serve as a comprehensive database and report card for states, allowing not only legislators but also the public to track which policies have advanced in different places across the country.

From ALEC’s perspective, the secrecy charge is outdated. “I reject his assessment of our organization,” said Bill Meierling, ALEC’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “We’re a grassroots organization of legislators that engage all stakeholders who are interested in conversations about free-market policy. Certainly some folks are more interested in free-market policy than others.”

After years of criticism about its practices, ALEC shifted course in 2013 and put all of its model legislation online, Meierling said. Its backers are also public, and its annual conferences are open to the press. “We learned some very hard lessons about the importance of communication. But the reality is we are an open and transparent organization today,” Meierling told me.

Future Now’s challenge in the policy arena is the same one it faces on the campaign side: It’s not the first group to the state party. A consortium of organizations that merged in 2014, the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, has already been doing similar work to train legislators, workshop ideas, and provide other support to understaffed progressives in state government. It does not do model legislation, but its website includes a library of bills that have been introduced in the states on a broad range of progressive issues. “I’m not sure what new thing Future Now brings to the table in that regard,” Fiddler said, noting SiX’s work in the policy space. “I think they are trying to reinvent the wheel a little bit unnecessarily.”

For the most part, the leaders of the various state-focused progressive groups don’t seem particularly concerned about the suddenly crowded political space in which they’re operating. A big part of their reasoning is the yawning gap Democrats still have to make up with Republicans outside Washington. “You don’t irrigate the desert with a single hose,” Squadron said. “We are nowhere near critical mass.”

Catherine Vaughan, the CEO of Flippable and one of its co-founders, told me that some of the organizations had discussed consolidating some of their operations or merging. But she said there was also a belief that different groups with different messages could reach different audiences, bringing more people into the process rather than going after the same population of potential donors and voters. And as successful as 2018 was for Democrats, their performance on the state level demonstrated how much further they needed to go. While donations to Democratic candidates increased across the board, the spike for congressional campaigns was far greater than it was for state legislatures. “We had a wave. It was somewhat on par with 2006,” Vaughan said. “But it was nowhere near the Republicans’ red wave of 2010 at the state level.”

The stakes for 2020 are even higher, but the fundraising challenge may be more formidable. Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke each raised more money during the first 24 hours of their presidential campaigns than Future Now Fund or its peer groups did in the entire last election. So far, however, they have yet to see a drop-off. Future Now uses a fundraising tool it calls “giving circles” to pool contributions from donors’ family, friends, and neighbors, and at the end of last year, the group partnered with the creator of a mass-online-donation program that, prior to their alliance, had raised nearly $1 million for state legislative candidates in just a three-week period. Commitments to Future Now giving circles in the first quarter of 2019 have already exceeded the total raised in 2018, Squadron said. The group also plans to lobby presidential candidates to focus on state legislatures as part of their campaigns, he said.

“It’s never been a cakewalk,” Future Now’s Cass told me. “For whatever reason, Democrats and groups on the left are obsessed with the federal government and the presidency. And they can’t let that go.

“It’s our job,” she said, “to change that.”