Once a hallmark of the Democratic party’s strength, control of state legislatures and Governorships, the party now controls a mere 30 state legislatures and only 19 of the nation’s 50 Governors mansions. Now, a new DNC report showcases why this has happened,.
According to the report, the Democratic party since 2008 has lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 910 legislative seats, 30 legislative chambers and a whopping 11 Governorships. Notably, the party only controls four of the eleven Governorships in states considered competitive for the 2016 Presidential race (Colorado, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia).
The report hints at several reasons why the Democratic Party has suffered such heavy losses since 2008. The first, the party has failed to focus enough on state legislative races. Another reasons is the failure to groom future candidates. Third, the party has failed to communicate a clear and concise message. The report cites other reasons but these are the three that stand out.
But, the report misses other very important factors. The first is the party that holds the White House almost always gets smashed in midterms (minus Clinton 98 and GW 2002). The elections of 2008 and 2010 were carbon copies of 1980 and 1982. Republicans romped in 80 and were soundly rebuked in 82. Democrats triumphed in 2008 only to be crushed in 2010.
Another factor is something the Democratic Party had little control of; generational change. Many of the legislative chambers that switched allegiances in 2010 came from the South where older, traditionally Democratic white voters are dying off and being replaced by younger Boomer and Millennial Republicans. Redistricting after 2010 only compounded the problem with traditionally Republican constituencies being drawn into safe districts.
However, by 2014, many legislative chambers and Governorships in the South were GOP. So this explanation does not explain why Republicans could win swing chambers in Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Maine and also take Governors mansions in blue states like Maryland and Illinois. Further, many of the party’s gains in the House came in light blue Congressional districts.
The DNC report misses the mark on Democratic struggles at the state and local level largely because like the RNC 2012 election autopsy it attempts to present a rosy picture for the future of the party. There is no rosy future for the Democratic Party at the state level. The party’s heavy bleeding of white, working class voters has damaged them in even deep blue states like Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts (all states the party lost btw).
The primary reason for Democratic struggles is clear. The Democratic coalition is top-down heavy and many of the party’s core constituencies do not show up in midterms (drop-off voters). But, less clear and not mentioned in the report is why Democrats struggle to relate to voters in state elections (ie. white, working class). Unfortunately, it is a problem the party made for itself.
Due to the unwieldy nature of the Democratic coalition the party has forged a modern coalition based on culture and cultural issues play a far more prominent role in federal elections. Debates over cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage and welfare often take center stage in federal races. Meanwhile, cultural issues are often downplayed in state races and Republicans in state races tend to focus on fiscal issues.
Two examples stand out. In Maryland, then GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan announced he was pro-life but said he would not seek to change the state’s abortion laws. His opponent relentlessly focused on the issue and lost while Hogan largely won because of his focus on spending and its results. In Illinois, then GOP candidate Bruce Rauner announced he supported abortion rights and gay marriage. There was little his Democratic opponent could do but to paint him as a Mitt Romney look a like.
Worse for the Democratic Party is that short of GOP implosions seen in 2010 (Colorado) and 2012 (Indiana, Missouri) the party’s appeal on cultural issues only goes so far. In Colorado Senator Mark Udall used more than half of all his ads to attack now Senator Corey Gardner on abortion. While Udall did win women he was crushed among Republican and Independent men.
As if it could not get worse for Democrats voters value issues differently in state races. Fiscal issues tend to dominate. This suggests that Democrats do not just suffer from a drop-off problem among voters but they struggle to translate support at the federal level to the state level. Consider that in Illinois among voters who somewhat approved of Obama (using as a proxy for voting in 2012) Rauner won 23% and 11% of those that strongly approved of the President. Quinn managed to win only 7% who strongly disapproved of the President.
Structural weakness also plays a part in this drama. The first is fairly obvious in the form of redistricting. Democrats suffer even more than the GOP in redistricting largely because their voters are often packed into a few, large metropolitan areas.
Second, the party is unable to sustain a strong bench. Unlike the GOP that has a strong bench of young Senators and Governors the Democratic Party has few. Further, the GOP can count on strong future statewide candidates due to their control of state legislative chambers (paging Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst).
Third, and likely most important for the party’s success is it creates a lack of institutional knowledge and pressure. Without institutional pressure there is little demand for the party to change. Without institutional knowledge the party lacks leaders to implement such change. As the DNC report indicates, there is little institutional pressure for the party to reform. Hence, “Voters like our policies but…”.
The DNC report is a good start for the party but it should go much further. A full report is expected in May but don’t expect it to cover the party’s structural deficiencies. Instead, it will be full of flowery and hopeful rhetoric about the future and the need to expand the party’s constituencies. Unfortunately, the way the Democratic party is set up now that is a herculean if not impossible task.