The Real Battlegrounds

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There’s a familiar question we get here at Groundwork Project from donors, pundits and politicos of all stripes: “Why don’t you focus on political battlegrounds?” 

(That is, the “purple” states where Democrats and Republicans are locked in fierce competition for control, where elections are generally decided by just a few points and the outcome profoundly impacts who has immediate political power in our system.)

Groundwork is a new political advocacy organization focused on something a little different. Our mission is to invest in hyperlocal community organizing in regions of the country that Democrats and progressives tend to overlook. We focus on the Deep South, the Plains and Appalachia, and our current state portfolio includes Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia — with big plans to expand in the years ahead. 

So I get it. It’s not every day the average progressive political donor gets a call encouraging them to send money to Oklahoma. Democrats are trying to defend the U.S. Senate majority in states like Georgia and Arizona, protect essential U.S. House members in California, Michigan and New Hampshire and claim critical state legislatures in places like Pennsylvania and Virginia. The imminent electoral challenges we face are steep and deserve an enormous amount of our resources, attention and fight. 

So why doesn’t Groundwork focus on these political “battlegrounds?”

It’s a simple answer: Because from the Deep South to Appalachia, we believe that our states are the real battlegrounds. And they’ve been largely ignored by the Democratic Party for too long, at a staggering cost. Until we show up on this front and fight, the political crisis we find ourselves in today will only deepen in the decades to come.

Consider this: It was a case out of Mississippi that led the U.S. Supreme Court to dismantle Roe. Then it was a case out of West Virginia that gave those same justices the ability to block President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency on climate action and a case out of Oklahoma that the Court used to limit indigenous and tribal sovereignty across the nation. This is a familiar pattern; recall that it was a case out of Alabama during former President Barack Obama’s term that gutted the Voting Rights Act — a decision whose consequences today are hard to overstate.

It is time for Democrats to start to invest long term and approach resource allocation with the same savvy, sustainability and patience that our adversaries have.

For decades, conservatives have steadily invested in building local power. They have methodically created a terrifying, nationwide incubator for anti-civil rights and anti-democracy policy where legislation can pass in one state and — thanks to conservatives’ vast judicial power — quickly impact policy across the entire nation.

The point is, the states where Groundwork has chosen to show up are not random or accidental. We have strategically hand-picked states that we believe are the most critical fronts in the biggest battles of our time, and these last few weeks are proof of that theory. Groundwork is moving resources to states where the battle isn’t about one candidate or one election, but about the survival of our civil rights, our truest ideals and our democracy itself. 

We are investing in states where a conservative Supreme Court’s most devastating weapons are built; where secretaries of state and local election clerks are contesting and undermining free and fair elections; where culture war movements like critical race theory and book banning find their oxygen and where redistricting and the census are being warped to give the far right an upper hand for decades to come.

Since founding Groundwork, I have seen firsthand the depth of organizing talent in these places, the high-stakes nature of the fights these states are taking on and the inexcusable scarcity of resources available to do the work. We’re starting at square one, funding and helping build up local organizing capacity, which we know is the first building block of civic and political power. We can’t effectively run candidates, lobby legislatures or compete statewide without robust, well-resourced progressive organizing capacity on the local level. 

The good news is there is absolutely no lack of talent, strength and potential on the ground. Our team is blown away by the local organizers we meet every day. Jaribu Hill with the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights has been organizing low-wage workers in the Delta for generations. Evan Milligan with Alabama Forward not only works every day to organize activists across the state, but also serves as the lead plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, the Supreme Court case challenging Alabama’s racist congressional map. Nicole McCormick is organizing fellow educators in West Virginia to continue their work, after their successful, headline-making teacher’s strike a few years back and Cece Jones-Davis in Oklahoma built a legion of organizing power to stop the unjust execution of a Black man in this deep-red state.

These incredible local organizers show up on the frontlines of the biggest fights of our time — from criminal justice to climate change, voting rights, abortion rights and immigration — day in and day out, despite the fact that national support, money and attention rarely finds them. They can’t — and shouldn’t have to — keep fighting alone. The outcome of these battles impacts every single one of us in ways we are just beginning to collectively comprehend. 

We are all wrestling with how to be most impactful at a scary moment for our country. But if one thing is clear, it is that Democrats cannot spend the next decade making the same mistakes we made the last several. We cannot continue to sit by while conservatives amass power at the local, state and judicial level in non-coastal America, largely uncontested by our side. 

This is hard and unglamorous work. You will not see electoral returns tomorrow. But it is time for Democrats to start to invest long term and approach resource allocation with the same savvy, sustainability and patience that our adversaries have. We have no other choice. The cost of the alternative is too high. 

Joe Kennedy III was the U.S. representative for Massachusetts’ 4th congressional district from 2013 to 2021 and most recently founded Groundwork Project.