When former New York state Sen. Daniel Squadron began his panel at the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia this past Saturday, the Democrat introduced himself as co-founder of Future Now and Future Now Fund, "two organizations focused exclusively, entirely and enthusiastically on state legislatures."
"I'll pause to let many of you leave the room," Squadron joked.
Ironically, the room was packed for the session entitled "State Legislatures: The Most Important Elections We're Not Talking About." The full capacity is proof of Democrats' renewed commitment to these races in which Republicans have dominated since 2010.
Squadron was joined on the panel by Pennsylvania state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, North Carolina state Rep. Sydney Batch, Sarah Horvitz, national political director for the progressive group Run for Something, and David Daley, a senior fellow for the electoral reform organization FairVote.
Horvitz stressed the high stakes for legislative races in this political moment.
"We saw in the last few months the way that state legislative chambers throughout this country are going after women's rights," she said. "They're the ones who are making those decisions. Those decisions aren't held in the presidency. They're not held in Congress. Decisions about minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, labor laws -- all that's happening in the states."
Batch recounted how recent legislative gains in her state helped Democrats weaken Republican measures.
"In North Carolina, there was a constitutional amendment to require voter ID that passed overwhelmingly, unfortunately," she explained. "Because we flipped 10 seats, and because the governor now has a veto, we were able to work with Republicans in the House in order to ensure that college IDs and a ton of other IDs were actually going to be included."
On the issue of voting rights, Daley said even Democrats aren't taking bold enough action.
"There are too many blue-state trifecta legislatures that have not done enough to expand voting rights," he told the crowd. "We have to start in the places where Democrats have control."
The panelists pointed to Virginia as the state where Democrats have the most to gain this year. Horvitz said the party could gain control of both state legislative chambers.
Meanwhile in Mississippi, "there are no candidates or candidates who are literally unreachable ... in a number of potentially competitive seats in the state Senate and the state House," said Squadron.
Aside from struggling to find candidates, the panelists raised concerns about convincing Democratic donors, large and small, to give money to state races. As the presidential election nears, so many of them are focused on defeating President Donald Trump. The panel made the case for donors to spread their dollars.
"Giving money to state legislative candidates gets results quickly," Horvitz said. "These races are cheap. The amount of money that basically one candidate raised last quarter for president could flip the entire state House of Texas. ... $25 actually goes a long way for these candidates."
But donors and voters can't care about what they don't know about. Panelists highlighted the need for more media coverage of state politics.
"Gone are the days of many community newspapers," said Fiedler, a former public radio station reporter. “Even our newspapers here in Philadelphia, the Inquirer and the Daily News, have for years been on the precipice. ... We need to demand more stories about our state legislature."