In 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.