The "Kid Wave" of 2018

The “Year of the Governor” was every bit as tumultuous as expected. With elections for 36 governors and more than 6,000 legislators, 2018 was the year for change in state capitols from coast to coast.

As the dust settles and electoral outcomes become clearer, we must take stock of our efforts around the 2018 gubernatorial elections and ponder any lessons learned. While our focus may now turn toward gubernatorial transitions and legislative sessions of 2019, future elections and opportunities to engage candidates will be here sooner than many of us dare consider.

The 2018 elections will bring huge and positive change to state-level early childhood funding and policy. Across the country, candidates and now governors-elect prioritized early childhood issues in their campaigns. Some candidates were early adopters of early childhood. Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker of Illinois launched his campaign with a comprehensive plan for early childhood that included high-quality child care and home visiting.   Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, an incumbent who was seeking her first elected term as governor, made pre-kindergarten a central component of her campaign from the beginning. As we know, governors are especially pivotal in providing the leadership to strengthen the funding and administration of programs and policies impacting young children.

Elsewhere, advocates and philanthropists worked tirelessly to insert early childhood and birth-through-eight policies into electoral contests. Governor-elect Gavin Newsome of California may not have started with a strong focus on early childhood issues, but thanks to the work of Choose Children and others, that is exactly where he ended. To close his campaign, Newsom promoted his “California Dream” platform, based in part on prioritizing a host of early childhood issues.

In a year of bipartisan rancor, early childhood emerged as a rare issue of consensus. Providing confirmation to a decade of polling finding broad support for early childhood, candidates of both parties eagerly embraced agendas focused on young children. According to an analysis conduct by the First Five Years Fund, over 75 percent of governors elected in 2018 are on the record supporting early childhood education.

In addition to Governor Ivey in Alabama, other Republican gubernatorial candidates who were elected campaigned in support of early childhood. While making the rounds on morning shows the day after the election, newly elected Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio attributed Republican success in the Buckeye State in part to a focus on children’s issues, including pre-kindergarten and quality home visiting services. Maryland and Massachusetts both re-elected Republican governors with big plans for little kids.  

What lessons can advocates and philanthropists take away from the “Year of the Governor”?  What did we learn as we worked to educate and engage candidates and the larger public?  While it will take time to see how many campaign promises become bills ― and, ultimately, laws ― we can take come preliminary guidance away from 2018.

Start Early: The most successful candidate engagement efforts of 2018 started well in advance of the “Year of the Governor.” Efforts that began early were better able to keep the heat on candidates and steer the conversation toward early childhood issues. The sooner we engage with candidates, the more influential we will be post-election. A frontloaded 2020 primary calendar means future efforts must start now.

Remember our Targets:  Electoral advocacy is different than legislative advocacy. Instead of trying to convince a large body of policymakers, advocates must work to convince a single candidate or small group of candidates. Focus like a laser on the candidates and their immediate spheres of influence.

Go Where There’s a Contest:  Uncontested elections produce little policy debate. Instead of a contest of ideas, lopsided elections are a months-long public relations effort. If there is an actual race, candidates are forced to be more open and our interest, attention, and resources are therefore much more valuable and influential.

Media Matters:  Advocates and philanthropists that used the media to highlight early childhood as a political issue achieved big results. Across the country, advocates and foundations used op-eds and traditional and social media engagement to make the case for early childhood. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Choose Children went so far as to sponsor the California gubernatorial debate, ensuring that early childhood would be addressed.

Be Bold but Be Specific:  Candidates that were aspirational were rewarded. However, turning vague promises into legislative reality is difficult. In states across the country, notably Illinois, implementation will be easier because gubernatorial transition teams have a clear and detailed roadmap of early childhood policy. No time will be wasted creating a plan, since it was clearly laid out early in the campaign.

Fight for Bipartisanship:  Across the country, both Democrats and Republicans embraced early childhood and birth-through-eight policies. This bipartisan enthusiasm must be maintained as candidates transition to governors implementing promises as policy. In order to maintain viability in all 50 states, special attention must be paid to ensuring that no one party becomes too closely identified with advancing early childhood policy.    

Run toward Revenue:  Candidates in states with state general revenue that has rebounded to pre-recession levels were more likely to propose bold early childhood initiatives.  Candidates in states that are less fiscally solvent were correspondingly less likely to propose bold and potentially costly new or expanded early childhood initiatives. 

While the “Year of the Governor” may be ending, the year of the candidate is beginning. With gubernatorial elections in 2019 in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi and 2020 races for thousands of state legislative seats, and the looming presidential primary on the horizon, 2018 was merely a warmup. Pundits talk at length about a “Blue Wave” and a “Red Wave.”  What we saw in 2018 was the early stages of a “Kid Wave.”  If advocates and their partners in philanthropy act quickly and use the lessons of 2018, together we can create a “Kid Tsunami” in 2020.

Jason Sabo

Frontera Strategy

(November 14, 2018)