Democrats Red State Blues

Democrats have a problem.  No, I am not speaking of their lack of a national bench.  Nor the 1,000 plus state legislative seats Republicans have taken from them in the last six years.  I am speaking of red-state Democrats blues.

The party’s best recruits and rising stars are found not in deep blue Massachusetts or California, but rather red Missouri and Indiana.  These stars have little chance of winning statewide office.

Take Jason Kander, the Democrats 2016 Senate candidate in Missouri who lost his race by three points in a state Trump won by 19.  Now, Kander has taken a long-term contract with CNN and formed a voting rights advocacy group.  Or take Pete Buttigieg, the 35 year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  Democrats only hold one statewide office and after next year might hold a big fat zero offices.

Recent events have not been kind to these kinds of Democrats.  The increasing correlation between Presidential and Senatorial results has made it that much harder for red-state Democrats to succeed where their national standard bearer dos not.  Even more worrisome, the correlation is starting to be reflected in gubernatorial and Presidential results (the last bastion of non-correlation).

This is uniquely troublesome for the party because to be successful the party will have to fight, and hold, unfriendly territory.  Gaining ground in some areas might not be tough in certain years.  It is holding that territory that will be the challenge.

Consider the significant difference in turnout between Presidential elections and midterms.  Presidential turnout tends to favor Democrats.  But, in red states, that dynamic often matters little.  Worse, in midterms, the electorate is often toxic for red-state Democrats.

In 1968, 22 gubernatorial contests were held in Presidential elections.  By 1976, that number had shrunk to 14 and by 1978 just 11 states held gubernatorial elections alongside Presidential ones.  The reasons varied for this shift but political leaders thought voters should focus primarily on one major statewide race at a given time (they could not change Senatorial elections).  Also, many states that used to hold gubernatorial elections every two years switched to four year terms.

As partisan allegiances firmed up with the South’s realignment, Democrats found themselves getting the worse of the deal.  Democrats could not compete in racially polarized Southern states nor deeply red states like Idaho out west.  Republicans, on the other hand, benefited from white, moderate electorates in the Northeast during midterms.  It is easy to see why Larry Hogan or Charlie Baker can compete in 2018 as opposed to 2020.

This effect is reduced on the Senatorial side by the six year cycle.  Former Senator Mark Kirk could win in deeply blue Illinois in 2010 due to turnout, the red wave and a weak opponent.  But, in a Presidential election against a half decent opponent he was clobbered.

Democrats face the reverse this year.  Many of the party’s red-state brothers and sisters, who won in 2012 due to weak opponents, a favorable national environment and not terrible demographics face increasingly white and conservative electorates.  Heidi Heitikamp, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, all rock stars in their own rights, will have to face the toxic electorate that has doomed many of their compatriots since 2010.

The math on the gubernatorial front is against Republicans considering the number of purple state Governor mansions they will be defending.  But, the House map looks favorable to them and the Senate map is a disaster for Democrats.  Even if Republicans have a so-so night it will be red-state Democrats that suffer.  This will only contribute to the increased polarization we continue to see in Congress and increase the correlation between Presidential and down-ballot results (even in midterms).

Of course, Democrats are going to have to learn how to win in this kind of environment.  If they don’t, the GOP leaning racial and economic make-up of this midterm could insulate Republicans from a blue wave.

 

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