Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to win the White House (with polls anticipating a diverse electorate) and many Democrats are optimistic her candidacy will boost their chances down-ballot. Specifically, the party hopes to take the Senate and several crucial governorships and state legislatures this November.
But, even if Democrats hold the White House for a third straight term and manage to take the Senate they will stay be facing a structural deficit the party has done little to rectify. Democrats might have some up and coming figures in blue states like California (Kamala Harris) and diversifying states like Nevada (Catherine Cortez-Masto) and Arizona (Ruben Gallego) but they will still face a talent deficit related to the GOP’s bolstered ranks.
In a way, the current Democratic weakness in the states is understandable. The GOP and conservative groups invested heavily in state legislative races and successfully made many races a referendum on Obama. Utilizing their success in the 2010 elections, Republicans redistricted many Congressional and legislative lines to their benefit (the courts have limited these efforts in Florida and Virginia). Democrats, for all their legislative and Presidential success under Obama have been devastated down-ballot. To date, Democrats have done little to rectify their weakness.
Current political trends do not offer Democrats much solace. Republicans are well positioned to protect their large majority in the House even if Trump falls in 3 months. The Senate, even if it flips, will be up for grabs in 2018 with Democrats fighting to hold seats in deeply red Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia. Many state legislatures the GOP holds in swing states (Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) are unlikely to see significant movement.
Three reasons stand out for Democratic weaknesses down-ballot. All are of the party’s own making. Democrats have made a concerted effort to win the White House. They have built a cultural connection to young and diverse electorates in many of the nation’s biggest cities. This has allowed them to acquire massive voting margins in Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, etc. But the flipside of this coin is that it has alienated Democrats from rural and suburban voters (many who turn out in off-year and midterm elections). This dynamic has allowed Democrats to build a decisive advantage in many federal and statewide contests but, particularly for legislative races, it has led Democrats to struggle to win swing and suburban legislative districts.
Geographically, Democrats also have a problem. By focusing almost exclusively on big cities they waste a significant number of votes in solidly blue districts. While they hold the majority of voters’ loyalties in the largest cities in the land they suffer for it in diverse, swing states like Colorado and blue states alike.
Take the case of NY State. Since 1992, the state has backed every Democratic Presidential nominee by double-digits. The state has not seen a GOP Governor since 2002 and the State Assembly as a Democratic super-majority. But, in the State Senate the dynamic is drastically different. Republicans hold a very narrow majority because, you guessed it, Democrats struggle outside of urban New York City. In fact, outside of city the Democrats control a mere 5 senate districts (and 2 of them are in urban Buffalo and Albany).
Need another example. Look to another solidly blue state in Minnesota. The state has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1976 and has a Democratic Governor. The Congressional delegation is 5-3 Democratic and the party narrowly controls the Senate.
Unlike NY State’s redistricting process, where incumbent protection was the name of the game, the GOP legislature and Democratic Governor could not agree on a new map after 2010 and the courts stepped in to hand Democrats a favorable map. Even so, Republicans control the State House because Democratic support outside of the Twin Cities is atrocious. Out of over 100 districts outside the Twin Cities the party barely controls over a dozen. Republicans control the rest and their small House majority hinges on these districts.
Lastly, the policy preferences the Democratic Party pursues at the state level (connected to their urban base) simply do not connect with rural and suburban voters. In 2009, fresh off Obama’s Presidential victory the party pursued policies of increasing taxes on the wealthy, legalizing gay marriage, expanding abortion access, increasing union pensions and a litany of cost increasing regulations. While gay marriage was not a deal-breaker to many voters the rest have been. Indeed, Democratic Governors in California (Jerry Brown) and New York (Andrew Cuomo) have pursued more moderate, business friendly policies of late.
It is not just on economic policies the Democratic Party is out of step with many voters on. Democratic preferences for inclusion and diversity, often at the expense of religious liberty and valid parental objections, have caused a backlash in many states. Just last year, Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected a non-discrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of their choice. The courts might be siding with Democrats on these issues but not the public.
Obviously, these structural issues are particularly damaging to the party. Democrats, seeking to limit their weakness down-ballot, have promised to invest heavily in 2018 and 2020 state contests. The idea being to counter the RLCC (Republican Legislative Campaign Committee) and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). But, so far, Democrats have found little success in creating a strong counter to these groups.
Additionally, Democrats lack the donors to fund such unglamorous efforts. Republicans have benefitted from Koch funded groups (Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and ALEC) investing heavily in these little known contests. The Koch network has dumped millions into these contests and helped Republicans maintain their legislative majorities.
It is not just what Democrats lack in the states but what Republicans have. While the GOP at the federal level is increasingly ideological at the state level it is robust demographically and ideologically. Take the cases of Maryland, South Carolina and New Mexico.
The Republican Governor of Maryland ran as a pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage Republican. He won both social/fiscal conservatives and suburban moderates. The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, ran as a welcoming minority conservative. She crushed her 2010 opponent in a rematch. The Governor of New Mexico ran as a staunch anti-illegal immigration Hispanic. Not only did she win but she won all but a few heavily Democratic counties in the North-Central area of the state. By contrast, all their opponents were doctrinaire liberals who had few differences fiscally and socially.
American politics has largely been defined by a give and take dynamic. Especially in the new millennium. In 2006, after Bush won reelection, Democrats took the House and Senate. In 2010, Republicans took the House right after Obama was elected. Republicans dominated the 2014 elections after Obama was reelected by a majority of voters.
This give and take dynamic seems even more daunting for the party when you consider that if Democrats win the White House they will have a Commander-in-Chief with the worst favorable ratings in history. She will have won by running hard to the left, alienating many blue-collar whites and even many of the voters who voted for her would not fully trust her.
It gets worse, the electoral map for Democrats is absolutely hellish in 2018 and this is the election which will largely define redistricting for the next decade. Democratic gubernatorial candidates would have to define their brand in a way separate from Clinton’s extremely liberal version. In addition, Democrats will be defending 5 Senate seats (WV, MT, MO, IN, ND) in states Romney (and likely Trump) won while Democrats have only one top target in Nevada. The battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida will also be up for grabs. Even the fact these are statewide contests does not offer the party much solace.
Democrats might win in 2016. But it could prove a pyrrhic victory. While the party might be able to achieve a lasting legacy through the Supreme Court (liberal Clinton appointees) it could cost them majorities in Congress and red and blue state legislatures alike. Democrats might yet again occupy the White House after November. But in the states they could continue to be in the political wilderness for the foreseeable future.