Democrats Are in Trouble

texas-republicans-star-ledgerjpg-0be7b7a438ac815fDespite 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.







Poor Jim Webb

jim_webb_dhI have to say, I feel sorry for Jim Webb. The former Vietnam veteran, Secretary of the Navy under Reagan and former Virginia Senator represents a bygone era for the Democratic Party. In truth, if there ever was a populist in the Democratic field in the truest sense it is Webb.

Why do I say this? Because Webb, despite his votes for Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, truly did believe these votes would protect the little guy from the power-hungry. He’s put his money where his mouth is by serving only one term and been an exemplary role model for moderates on both sides of the aisle.

Alas, Webb is now a man without a party. He considers today’s GOP to be much too far to the right to get his support. As for the party he calls home today, they consider him an oddity, an eccentricity, which is saying something when they think Sanders is more mainstream.

Webb’s ideology hearkens back to a time when populists were the likes of Andrew Jackson. Jackson railed against central banks and the power of the wealthy, property owning elite. Tellingly, in his 1824 and 1828 Presidential victories, Jackson dominated the rural vote.

When Webb served as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy he identified as a Republican because the party was composed of a mix of conservative, populist elements and suburban management. The Democratic Party since LBJ had been ruled by unions and technocrats. Today, that dynamic has changed. Both parties are beholden to K Street and neither truly has populist principles at their cores.

Webb’s Senate victory in 2006 was able to transcend the kind of partisanship we have become accustomed to seeing. Railing against the Iraq War, Webb also discussed the power of K-Street and political elites. Opposition to Iraq won him Northern Virginia and his biography and downscale appeal allowed him to carry a swath of Southern Virginians (the voters the party will never win back).

Webb’s background and populist nature might have won him a Senate seat but it all but dooms him on a national stage. The Democratic base is almost solely focused on identity politics, wedge issues and the evils of “white privilege.”

To his credit, Webb does not buy this garbage. Webb wrote about his belief in all Americans and pushed back against the idea of “white privilege,” largely because it is designed to pit Americans against each other. Shocker, he’s right.

Unfortunately, ideas like “white privilege” and identity politics are ingrained in the Democratic base. It’s why Clinton is doing so well discussing immigration reform and abortion. Both play well to Democratic constituencies but few others. Except men, of course.

It’s sad to see Jim Webb struggle in the primary. He is the lone Democrat trying to bridge the partisan divide in America and bring a broad coalition together. Instead, he is being overshadowed by a 75 year old socialist and a Clinton who has been tarred with scandals for 30 years. In essence, Webb shows just how broken today’s Democratic Party is.

Can Bernie Sanders Win Blue-collar Workers?

isEvery now and again I come across an article that makes me think. An article by the Washington Post on Bernie Sander’s and the blue-collar vote did get me thinking about whether Sander’s could help the party reconnect with their blue-collar roots.

On one level it makes sense. For all the voters Barack Obama has brought into the Democratic fold he has made the party shed an equal number of voters, particularly blue-collar whites.

This started even before he was elected President. In the 2008 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton crushed Obama in particularly blue-collar Appalachia as well as among Hispanics. It is this blue-collar vote combined with urban and upscale white population centers that Sander’s believes could give him a leg up in the primary.

But would blue-collar voters really back Sander’s in the primary. The WP article focuses on formerly blue West Virginia and interviews with several current and former UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) workers. These voters express disenchantment with Obama and a few go as far as to say they voted for Romney.

I had a few initial thoughts to this related to the state in particular and blue-collar workers in general. In relation to West Virginia, the state has not been a Democratic stalwart Presidentially since 2000. Sure, the state has been Democratic at the local level but many of those Democrats were as culturally conservative as GOP Presidential nominees. Sander’s is culturally conservative on guns but he sure is no conservative on gay marriage, religious freedom and abortion.

Nationally, blue-collar workers are not a homogeneous group politically or ideologically. For example, blue-collar workers in the South are far more conservative across the board than those in the West or Midwest. However, many are culturally conservative and fiscally moderate. Bernie is neither.

Indeed, the Sander’s camp realizes this and is downplaying their weakness on cultural issues by relentlessly focusing on class and economics. On issues of inequality, being left behind and railing against the political class the Sander’s camp has probably struck a chord with these voters.

That is great and all but it ignores just how intertwined ideology and culture are. For decades, since the 80s, Democrats have lamented how the GOP has turned former blue-collar Democrats into Republican stalwarts. This would not have happened if not for divisive battles over abortion, gay marriage and religion had not played out nationally.

Likewise, Democrats would be unlikely to have captured so much of the youth vote if not for their focus on abortion, gay marriage and racism.

I would be remiss if I did not note that another obstacle facing Sander’s is his trust in government. Sander’s talks of expanding government in a massive new way in every speech-single payer healthcare, increasing pell grants and subsidies, new regulations on banks, etc. Some of his ideas have broad support such as taxing Wall-Street fat cats and reining in our foreign interventionist policies but those are about as likely to become reality as I becoming a millionaire tomorrow.

Can these policies outweigh his overwhelming love for government to blue-collar workers? Probably not. Blue-collar workers have become increasingly hostile to government and talk of higher taxes against people only sounds good when it is geared towards smart government, not bigger government, policies.

Of course, this is discussing more a general electorate. In the Democratic primary it is probably safe to say that many blue-collar workers that still associate with the party do so out of ancestral loyalty.

Just look at the South. Many Southern states still have more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet the GOP is in solid control of the region at virtually every level. Getting these ancestral Democrats to vote for a candidate in love with government is a hard sell.

The numbers in Appalachia bear this out. In 2008, blacks made up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate in a majority of Southern states. Only in Arkansas, West Virginia and North Carolina (by a slim margin) did whites make up a majority of the electorate. This is not a recipe for electoral success, especially when you consider Hillary seems to have a solid lock on the minority vote.

Of course things could change. Biden entering the race would split the traditional liberal vote two ways and give Sander’s yet another chance to rail against the establishment. But for all that, Sander’s would still be stuck with the big-government and culturally liberal persona he personifies. Neither is fit with blue-collar voter

How the Clinton Brand Hurts Down-ballot Democrats

2014-06-11t155415z1813105711gm1ea6b1uc101rtrmadp3usa-politics-clintonIn states Obama carried twice, Democratic candidates for Senate may have the benefit of running in favorable territory, there is another group of Democrats who don’t. Specifically, Democratic candidates running in states and Congressional/legislative districts where Mitt Romney crushed the President in 2012.

To put in perspective of just how tricky it is for these Democrats, consider the recently concluded Kentucky gubernatorial debate that occurred Wednesday morning. Kentucky is a state that voted for Mitt Romney with over 60% of the vote, has five of six Republican congressmen and two GOP Senators.

In the debate, speaking specifically of Clinton, Attorney General Jack Conway (D) said he was not sure who he would vote for in the Democratic primary. That is quite an admission from a candidate who hails from a state and region of the country where Clinton performed so strongly in 2008.

Furthermore, Conway introduced Clinton at a rally for Ken­tucky Demo­crats Sen­ate nominee Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes last year.

“I have a distinct honor tonight,” Conway said. “I stand here on this stage where soon you will hear from the next president of the United States.” This points to the perils these candidates face not just running but running under a Clinton candidacy.

This was not the initial thinking of the Democratic Party in mid to late 2014. Facing a daunting electoral map, the party mused they might be able to win back a few seats in a Presidential cycle with a Clinton topping the ticket. But her stock has fallen, and along with that the party’s hopes of a recovery in the region.

Democratic avoidance of Clinton has not just occurred in Kentucky. In Louisiana, which is also holding its gubernatorial election this year, top Democratic recruit John Bel Edwards avoided Clinton citing a scheduling conflict. This is not really surprising when you look at how red Louisiana is, but keep in mind Bill Clinton carried the state twice and Al Gore only lost the state by eight percent in 2000. Recent polling shows Edwards over-performing and possibly pulling off the upset, so why link himself to the national party’s standard-bearer?

It’s not just the South where Democratic candidates are in awkward positions talking about Clinton. Next year, gubernatorial and legislative elections will also occur in red-leaning Montana, West Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, and Missouri. The GOP controls North Carolina and Indiana but is looking to increase its strength by taking Montana and Missouri.

The tenuous hold of the Democratic party in these states is not hard to note. In 2012 Montana Governor Steve Bullock barely won against a weak Republican by one percent. He outran the President by double-digits.

In Missouri, Jay Nixon is term-limited. He has often fought with a legislature dominated by veto-proof GOP majorities. Finally, in West Virginia, the open gubernatorial contest gives the GOP a good chance to leverage their new-found legislative majorities by taking the Governor’s mansion.

Given these dynamics in a neutral environment, it would be hard for any Democrat to win these states. But under a Clinton Presidential umbrella it would prove politically impossible. Not only is Clinton almost as far left as Bernie Sanders (open relations with Cuba, a Wall-Street tax, comprehensive immigration reform, federal $15 minimum wage, pro-choice in all circumstances, pro gun-control), but she is also scandal-plagued.

If a Clinton candidacy were to unfold and the Republicans fielded a decent Presidential nominee (not Trump), the party could sweep all three Democratic controlled conservative states. Keep in mind this is speaking only of gubernatorial contests, not legislative or other Constitutional executive offices.

Conventional wisdom says higher turnout usually benefits Democrats in Presidential elections. But that wisdom was not prevailing in 2000 and 2004 when it benefited Republicans. If a strong or even mild GOP headwind develops in 2016, higher turnout could spell disaster for Democratic candidates nationally (not just in red states).

Consider the case of the Minnesota legislature. The state has two Democratic Senators, a 5-3 Democratic Congressional delegation, and a Democratic Governor and state senate. It has also voted for the Democratic nominee for President since 1976.

Yet, as strong a Democratic lean as the state may have nationally at the legislative level it is far swingier. In 2010, the GOP took control of both the state senate and house. In 2014 the party retook control of the state house even while losing the Governorship and US Senate contest. The reason why is simple and points to the predicament many Democrats face in legislative races: legislative districts lean red.

Such a phenomenon is not limited to Minnesota. In neighboring Wisconsin the GOP Presidential nominee has not won the state since 1984, but the GOP controls the state house by a whopping 62-37 margin because the average house district is several points to the right of the state as a whole. A similar scenario is at work in the state senate.

Running a tarnished Democratic candidate at the Presidential level won’t change the dynamics of this situation. Indeed, it will make it worse. Democrats need either higher turnout or the support of swing voters to win these contests. In 2008, they received both. In 2010 turnout dropped and swing support disappeared.

But in 2012 the party saw higher turnout without swing support and suffered. Last year’s midterms featured a repeat of 2010 but even worse results because of the transition of several Southern states into the GOP camp.

All this makes it an incredible challenge for Democratic candidates running across the country. But a Clinton candidacy, plagued by scandal, could make many efforts impossible.