Despite President Obama winding down his seventh year in office and Republican dysfunction in the House the Democratic Party is in deep trouble. Yes, the GOP field is led by two political neophytes but this has led to Democrats growing complacent instead of seizing the opportunity to create power outside of DC.
It’s true the Presidency is important but so are thousands of down-ballot legislative Governor, Congressional and state constitutional elections. As of 2014 the GOP controls a staggering 70 percent of state legislatures, 31 Governors offices and more than 55 percent of state Attorneys Generals. Republicans are so confident of their control in the House they are comfortable having an ideological battle about where the Caucus should go moving forward.
Republicans have a plan, at least they think they do, to address their Presidential election weaknesses. But when one looks at the Democratic plan it is nonexistent. It seems Presidential turnout lifts Democratic boats is the name of the game.
Democrats are as consumed as the GOP with the direction their party should take. Bernie Sanders represents the party moving a lot to the left while Clinton just a tad more.Either way, neither candidate’s ideology is likely to help down-ballot candidates running in swing states or seats.
Democrats are loathe to admit it but the weakness of their party is visible to every American in state government. Sure, state legislative elections are not sexy but they are the building blocks of American politics. Not only do they control redistricting but they also breed a new generation of federal politicians as well as policy ideas to be molded and shaped into federal policies.
Democrats had commanding control of state legislatures and Governorships in 2006 and 2008. But neither was due to Democrats building an enduring majority. Democratic gains were obliterated in 2010 and replaced by Republican majorities who enacted legislative and Congressional maps favorable to their electoral success. Obama’s reelection was a limited victory for Democrats as 2014 gave Republicans their most Congressmembers since 1928 and control of 70 percent of state legislatures.
Lest one assume these gains came only in red and purple states they would be wrong. Republicans gained control of the Minnesota state assembly, the NY state senate and Washington State senate. Republican dominance was so profound they won Governorships in blue Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland. All three states have Democratic legislatures but a GOP Governor can serve as a check on their priorities.
That leaves Democrats with unified control of a meager 7 states compared to the GOP’s whopping 25. Sure, Democrats control California, but the GOP’s dominance in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina alone mean their policies will impact more of the American public.
Perhaps Democrats were feeling overconfident after 2012. They had gained back seats in Congress, enlarged their majority in the Senate and won both red and blue Governorships. Anticipating 2014 to be more about overreach than the quality of their candidates or the President the party expected success.
The result was anything but. Calling last year a bloodbath would be unkind to bloodbaths. Democrats did not gain back a single purple state Governorship except for Pennsylvania because scandal plagued GOP Governor Tom Corbett refused to resign. In Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Maine, strongly conservative Governors beat back moderate opponents on the strength of their operation and message. In the absence of expected success, Democrats have not developed a new strategy.
In a way this represents the broader view the Democratic Party has of Republicans. They see the GOP as a group of hard-right extremists to ideological to get elected. But this ignores a crucial part of the GOP’s success. They are flexible ideologically in down-ballot elections and assemble temporary coalitions every state has.
Consider the scenario of Illinois. Then candidate Bruce Rauner ran hard to the right of incumbent Pat Quinn. But Rauner supported gay marriage, downplayed abortion and also focused on campaigning in heavily black communities. It might not have won him many black votes but it showed suburban, fiscally conservative voters he cared about all voters, not just Republicans.
In Maryland and Massachusetts, Republican candidates assembled a business friendly coalition of fiscal conservatives and social liberals. This is easy to do when you can campaign against the policies of a hard left legislature intent on implementing dozens of new taxes and fees. It is much harder for Democrats to do it with Republicans intent on cutting voters taxes.
Democrats, for all their success at the federal level, have not had similar success down-ballot. Take the case of Wendy Davis in Texas. Her entire campaign theme centered on abortion and reproductive rights but that is an unusual issue to assemble a winning coalition on (even if Texas was a blue state).
Core Democratic constituencies are also particularly narrow in their interests. Labor unions and environmental groups are powerful in key states but the interests they advocate only advance the interests of their members and few others.
The the case of the teachers unions. While the NEA and AFT claim to represent the interests of all their collective bargaining and political power is only used to advance the interests of their members. The suburban voter sees nothing of benefit from their avocation but does see his/her property taxes go up to pay for more benefits and higher salaries.
Hopes for Democratic policy-making at the states tends to start with the premise Democrats won’t be able to strongly shape policy until 2022. By then new maps will be in place and GOP retrenchment might have been turned back or limited. But this also ignores the fact that the GOP controls many marginal legislative chambers.
Take the cases of the Minnesota assembly and Washington State senate. In Minnesota, due to the Democratic base presiding in metro Minnesota the party’s legislative control wrests on controlling suburban and rural districts but these districts have a conservative lean. So while Republicans might win a majority of their districts 54-46 and Democrats 80-20 the fact there are more 54-46 districts gives the GOP an inherent advantage even if there are more Democrats in the state.
The same goes for the Washington state senate. The majority of Democrats reside in urban Seattle and the inner suburbs. But move out beyond and you find a suburban landscape littered with socially moderate Republicans who assemble business friendly electorates to survive even Presidential years.
Democratic leaders know they face these problems and thus push back little when analysts and the media say Democrats have zero chance of retaking in the House (heck, maybe even the Senate). Backbenchers might be annoyed but they are ignoring the ominous reality facing their party.
Unfortunately for the party this means short of the White House the party’s policy goals are dead on arrival. It forces Democrats to rely on Executive Orders which can be overturned easily by the courts or a future GOP President easily.
For better or worse the GOP has two paths to advance their agenda. First, hope the economy turns south at some point before 2016 or 2020 and use the result to ride voter dissatisfaction to the White House. The other option is to sound more welcoming to women and Latinos and expand their coalition.
Neither of these plans is particularly brilliant, or foolproof, but they both make sense. For all the talk of Democrats having a lock on the electoral college their electoral majority is relatively thin.
Florida went for Obama by less than half a percent, Ohio by 2.5 percent, Virginia by 3 percent, etc. Obama’s 51 percent of the vote was a significant drop from his 7 percent win in 2008 and he lost all income groups above $50K. A drop-off in turnout or Republican inroads among lower income voters could easily end the party’s strong run in Presidential races.
This shows up in 2016 polling. Despite having cash and name ID, Hillary Clinton is barely beating barely known Republicans nationally and more importantly in many traditional swing states (CO, PA, VA) she is losing to the likeliest GOP nominees.
If the GOP were to retake the White House, hold the Senate (even if it is 50-50) and keep a sizable majority in the House they could enact numerous conservative policies Democrats hate (a national right to work law, repealing Obamacare, replacing Medicaid with a no strings attached approach granting system to the states, etc.). That should fill all Democrats with dread and make them redouble their efforts to find a path back to power in the states. For even if Democrats win the White House next year the GOP will still have a strong class of future recruits sitting safe and pretty in their legislative and Congressional districts until 2022.