On Saturday, February 25th, a special election will be held in Delaware Senate District 10. The seat, being vacated by a Democrat, used to anchor a 11-10 Democratic majority in the chamber. Now, with the vacancy, the GOP has a chance to steal the state’s upper chamber for the first time in 40 years (the seat is competitive at the state level).
This is not an isolated incident. Since Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans have witnessed a rebirth at the state level (recovering from Bush’s years and then some). Even Democratic victories in blue states are now not a guarantee for the party as witnessed by Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois in 2014 and the Connecticut and Minnesota State Senates last November.
Democrats can comfort themselves with the fact they have won the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 Presidential elections. Additionally, they remain dominant among growing, minority blocs (Hispanics and Asians). But as I have written prior, Democratic weaknesses among whites hurts them in swing states and relying on demographics for victory does not a victory make (quoting Yoda). Neither of those problems compare to the problem Democrats have down-ballot.
Just consider these numbers for a moment. Republicans have unified control of 25 states (Governor and both legislative chambers). Democrats have a mere six states (including Delaware). Worse, perennial blue states like Washington State and NY State have a GOP/Democratic coalition controlled Senate because progressives have driven the conservative wing of their party to the more moderate state GOPs.
Houston We Have A Problem
In 2015, Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox introduced a controversial article. In it, he argued that contrary to popular opinion it was Democrats who were in deep trouble. Then, as now, he remains right. Democrats are bleeding support and they do not seem to understand why. If they can win the national vote why can they not win the states?
Many of Yglesias’s points remain true today. Despite the rise of Trump, the GOP remains the party of ideological diversity. You have gay marriage and abortion supporting Governors in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois. In Congress, 23 Republicans sit in Clinton supporting districts stretching from coast to coast (California to Virginia). Republicans control majority-minority Obama/Clinton districts to 90 percent white, Trump districts.
Even when out of power the GOP had a perfectly reasonable path back to power. Early on it did not include Trump but playing on rural voters annoyance with Democrats the party rode the populist backlash against elites to the White House.
Even as this was occurring the GOP was showing its remarkable flexible ideological coalition. Democrats bemoan how rigid the GOP has become but that is not how most voters see it. A full five million vote flip occurred between President and Congress. In state races the numbers are probably similarly striking.
Instead of adhering to ideological or partisan loyalty many Republicans embraced or ran away from Trump with little consequence. Yes, you can argue Joe Heck in Nevada and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire suffered but due to high correlation between Senate and Presidential results in the states the data is far from foolproof. Additionally, Democrats that embraced Clinton, even in states and districts she won, found out voters really didn’t care. And they paid the electoral price for it.
In the Wilderness
Instead of trying to find out why voters rejected the Democratic message the party has turned inward. Instead of unity the party is fracturing along strategic and ideological lines. Ironically, Republicans had these cleavages after 2009 but due to ideological and racial cohesion their path back to power by opposing Obama was easier.
Democrats are now finding their party split between progressives and moderates, Sanderistas/Warrenites vs. Clinton backers, and majority-minority members vs. affluent, white suburbanite members.
Complicating matters further is the 2018 Senate map where 10 Democrats sit in Trump states (5 in states he won by 20 points or more). These members make it hard for the party to pursue the rigid, blanket opposition to Trump. This has already become apparent on Trump’s more controversial Cabinet nominees.
Echoing the job of a Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer (NY) said he would work with Trump where he could and oppose him when needed. For example, Schumer joined Trump and Republicans in opposing Obama’s anti-Israel abstention in the United Nations.
Warren and Sanders have signaled their intention to fight the administration on every turn by opposing every Cabinet nominee he has put forward. Centrist, business friendly Democrats look forward to Trump’s infrastructure package but worry about his cutting of red tape. Affluent, suburban Democrats are concerned about his views/actions on foreign policy and the environment but know that their party’s leftward creep only can go so far before it angers their voters (just look at the massive vote flip in Baltimore County from 2010-2014).
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ironically, the men most responsible for the destruction of their party (and it’s leftward creep), are the ones with the most cohesive plan to rescue it, or at least keep it on life support. Former AG Eric Holder has started an effort to reverse GOP dominance down-ballot. The group contends it will focus on winning elections, stopping gerrymandering via lawsuits and supporting strong candidates across the board.
One problem: All are tacit acknowledgements the party faces deep structural and ideological problems it has not made an effort to fix (and probably will not). Additionally, these are problems Eric Holder nor Obama can fix.
Some are of the party’s own making and others are random chance. It has hammered home countless times but it deserves yet another mention, Democrats are done in by their geographical and ideological coalition. Their voters are clustered in increasingly dense, urban cores and inner suburbs. They also tend to be increasingly liberal making it harder for the statewide or rural candidates to craft a compelling message to receive bipartisan support (see Minnesota example here).
Compromise candidates put forth by the party tend to drift inevitably leftward over the course of their terms hurting their party and brand (just ask Vermont Democrats). They also tend to bleed support over time whereas many Republican candidates support stays steadier and more consistent.
With no clear answers the party has turned to arguing that gerrymandering and Republican Voter ID Laws motivated by racial animus have caused their current political quagmire. These arguments would be great if they held water.
There is no greater proponent of gerrymandering’s deleterious impact on the party than the grassroots faithful at Daily Kos (caveat: I use their data often and rarely question its validity). The Daily Kos’s data analysts even went as far as to create “non-partisan” maps in every one of the US’s 43 states that have more than one Congressional district to argue just how gerrymandered the map is.
There is no doubt the GOP has gerrymandered the map in their favor but liberals drawing “non-partisan” maps is as impractical as conservatives doing the same. Notably, in every map not a single Democratic district is eliminated while at least two-dozen GOP seats fall as they are merged with urban cores or majority-minority areas (no bias there).
Even when gerrymandering is taken out of the equation Democrats still lose. Redistricting commissions in Arizona and Iowa drew maps the GOP dominated last year. Florida’s maps were redrawn and the state GOP still holds the legislature by significant margins. Court drawn maps in Colorado and Minnesota (specifically created to eliminate bias) have produced a GOP controlled state senate (Colorado) and unified partisan control (Minnesota). Certainly, Democrats can argue gerrymandering limits their political viability (just ask Wisconsin Democrats) but it in no way makes their victory more likely.
Voter ID laws are yet the same kind of crutch for the party. Minority turnout in Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona has increased year over year. Yet, Clinton lost all of them and statewide Democratic officeholders in the state are virtually non-existent. If Democrats were honest with themselves they might acknowledge all these states are racially polarized to varying degrees and as a result they should shift their ideological message.
Waiting on Trump
All this is not to say Democrats are permanently locked out of power. They certainly can rebound. But, so far, the party seems to be banking on an unpopular Trump as their best hope. Yet, as I have written before, an unpopular Trump is no guarantee the party will do well.
Indeed, the breadth of GOP dominance down-ballot augers badly for the party. Republicans suffered little damage for ditching Trump in 2016 and may be eager to do it again in 2018 if he starts to drag them down. What worked once there is little risk in trying again?
Trump has a significant role to play in this whole affair. If he governs as a national security and fiscal conservative he unites his party. But, if he causes deep ideological and partisan debates within the party he could give Democrats the fodder they need to use the GOP’s ideological depth against it.
Already, Trump has signaled to conservatives he will advocate for them on regulations, taxes and healthcare (all via EO) and abortion. Indeed, Mike Pence spoke at the Right to Life March in DC. He has cracked down on immigration and fulfilled his promises on temporarily ending accepting refugees. Now we wait on his bipartisan promise to fund a massive infrastructure package.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Democrats believe the American people have been successfully duped by Republicans and big business. But, in reality, voters across the nation have consistently rejected the ideology of progressivism on the economy.
Not a better example stands out where voters gave the state senate to Republicans while electing a Democratic Governor. Hailing from King County, Jay Inslee proposed a $4 billion tax hike to fund education. This, on top of prior tax increases last year. By electing the GOP State Senate, voters sought balance instead of a progressive, economic agenda.
Such a result reflects the inconsistency of the Democratic agenda. Their views on social issues are popular. But, their views on the environment, the economy and education are not and all three issues direct the average voter far more than social issues. Republicans can run against Democratic overreach on these issues and appeal to voters frustrations with Democrats.
A healthy two parties are needed in America that reflect the geographical and ideological depth in America. But, right now, the Democratic Party is controlled by the ideological left and voters have rejected Democrats. Until the party comes to terms with this and a concrete plan to regain power they will continue to be in a minority and the GOP will maintain its dominance across the country from sea to shining sea.