In American elections, the little elections are often overlooked. For example, in 2006 and 2008 everybody noted Democrats took Congress and the Presidency. Much less noted was their dominance of state legislatures and Governorships. In 2010, most analysts noted GOP gains in the Senate and retaking control of the House. Less noted was their dominance in Governor races and even less noted was their overwhelming control of state legislatures across the country. This phenomenon continued in 2012. Pundits galore focused on Democrats holding the White House, maintaining control of the Senate and nibbling away at the GOP majority in the House. Less noticed was that the GOP maintained control of numerous state legislatures, gained super-majorities in almost a dozen chambers, and by the time the dust had settled still dominated state politics.
Part of the reason for this is redistricting. Republicans did a masterful job of moving the lines in their favor in numerous states. But another reason is one that neither party can control but that the GOP can exploit. The Democratic Party is increasingly losing elements of its old FDR coalition in favor of a younger, more female and diverse coalition. Geographically, however this means Democrats are concentrated in major cities that are ripe for exploitation during redistricting and creating wasted votes in safe Democratic areas.
At the Pittsburg Tribune Review, writer Salena Zito points this out with two examples. The town of Indian Head has been a solid bastion for Democrats since FDR. The last Republican to carry it was Richard Nixon in 1972. John McCain, with the help of Ralph Nader beat Obama here by 90 votes. But Mitt Romney crushed Obama here by over 10%. Another example would be Ulster County, New York. The county is heavily Democratic at the federal level; Ulster backed Obama by 23% in 2012. But the county legislature is 12-11 Republican. Surely there must be other reasons than demographics that explain this trend.
The answer is simple despite the complexities of voters behavior. The GOP simply connects better with voters down-ballot. In local, county and even statewide races GOP candidates can meet with voters face to face and hear their concerns. After hearing these concerns, the GOP candidate can position him/herself on whatever issue to win enough votes. Democrats, an increasingly urban driven party, are unable to connect in the same way, They can still play in poshy and low income suburbs and cities but in rural areas and exurbs their appeal is extremely limited.
Consider some numbers as we head into the 2014 election. The GOP controls 30 of the nation’s 50 Governorships, 233 House of Representative seats, and has complete control of 24 state governments. GOP control is also not solely in safe GOP areas. In swing Ohio, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania the GOP has complete control. Even if they lose control in a few after 2014 their position will still be strong due to their likely legislative majorities.
Democrats certainly have not helped their strength down-ballot since 2010. Even in 2006 and 2008 their brightest stars focused on federal races. National waves gave them majorities in state legislatures and control of Governors mansions. But since that time Democrats have done little to replace their aging party leaders. Indeed, it seems in 2016 Democrats may be willing to turn away from a young, new face and embrace the Clintons yet again.
The most important facet of state and local races is that it allows parties to build key infrastructure in a state for future elections. It also allows them to groom future statewide and federal office candidates. The examples of this are all around. In Colorado, GOP infighting has allowed Democrats to groom numerous future candidates and control the legislature and Governor’s mansion. Yet, in Florida, Democrats diverse coalition of whites women, blacks and Hispanics has fractured to the point Democrats are turning to a former Republican Governor to be their standard-bearer for Governor in 2014.
Republican strength downballot should give the party hope for the future. For Democrats, it is a worry they seem to have yet realized.