Pundits discuss what Democrats must do at the state level


There appears to be a trend developing among liberal progressive pundits.

Steve Benen today looks at Tuesday’s election results and notes, Democrats struggle with the down-ballot blues :

2014.unified.govRepublican strategist Rory Cooper published a tweet that included some eye-opening data this morning. It quickly received widespread attention, which was well deserved.

“Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats. That’s some legacy.”

I’ll confess I haven’t fact-checked each of the specific data points, but roughly speaking, Cooper’s tally sounds about right. I think the suggestion that President Obama is responsible for the losses is largely misplaced, but quantitatively, the figures paint a damning, accurate picture.

And it’s assessments like these that have led to all kinds of commentary, especially on the heels of yesterday’s election results, about the Democratic Party’s deep rooted, institutional-level challenges. The critiques are hard to avoid and they ring true: the party’s problems at the state level have reached crisis levels; the party has no credible farm team to cultivate future gains; there’s an entire region in which the party finds it difficult to run competitive statewide campaigns; etc.

Without specifically referencing it, I believe Benen is referring to Matt Yglesia’s piece from last month, Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble. Here is a taste of what Yglesias said:

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won’t lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.

Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.

I have read numerous commentaries both pro and con on Yglesias’ piece, see Ed Kilgore’s response at the Political Animal blog, Are Democrats Complacent Going Into 2016?

After reading Matt Yglesias’ cri de coeur against “complacent” Democrats who don’t seem to be aware the Donkey Party is a presidential loss away from a total conservative makeover of the country, my basic reaction is that Matt needs to get out more.

* * *

But aside from Matt’s questionable assessment of Democratic self-knowledge, his hypothesis also suffers a bit from the assumption that the party’s downballot problems can be dispelled by more effort or some undefined “plan.” He does note one built-in dilemma: midterms tend to be characterized by reaction against the party controlling the White House, so unless you lose the White House it’s hard to win midterms. But he doesn’t mention the midterm turnout patterns that have suddenly turned against the Democratic Party since 2008, and that contributed significantly to GOP gains in 2010 and 2014. Nor does he mention another structural factor: controlling a majority of the states can be accomplished with far less than a national majority thanks to the number of small (and often conservative) states.

* * *

More generally, Matt’s idea that Democrats should stop obsessing over the presidential race and focus on state elections right now is questionable. For one thing, even if you regard the presidency as a thin, fragile thread by which the Democratic Party holds onto a share of power, it’s a pretty damn important thread. And for another, a focused GOTV effort in a presidential year is going to produce Democratic downballot gains next year, almost infallibly, especially but not exclusively in battleground states. Yes, it is unfortunate for Democrats (but absolutely beyond anyone’s control) that relatively few governorships are up for grab in 2016. But if Matt really is interested in a “plan” for recovery instead of just a healthy sense of panic, then the actual 2016 battlegrounds are a good place to start.

This is a just a sampling of the back and forth that has gone on among liberal progressive pundits over Ygelsias’ piece, for context.

Back to Steve Benen today:

I still think some context is in order.

Much of today’s commentary is the result of yesterday’s results, but the three states with the most statewide races in the 2015 election cycle are Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana – three Southern “red” states that haven’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate in a generation. In other words, these aren’t three random states that help reflect broader national trends; they’re three states where Republicans have a built-in advantage.

And while the GOP certainly had a great day yesterday, let’s not forget that Dems still managed to win some key statewide contests, and may yet win the gubernatorial race in Louisiana in a couple of weeks.

There’s also some recent history to keep in mind: what’s happening to Democrats right now isn’t that unusual for the party of a two-term president. When the Reagan/Bush era came to an end, Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, most governors’ offices, and most state legislative seats. At the end of the Clinton/Gore era, Democrats had lost most of what they’d gained. At the end of the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans had suffered through two consecutive wave elections and looked like a small, regional, leaderless party.

In fact, therein lies an overlooked detail: in 2006 and 2008, Democratic voters got off the couch, fueled by George W. Bush’s failures, and gave Dems a historic advantage. The party then took its political capital, invested it in a series of progressive, landmark victories, and slowly bled its post-Bush gains.

Rory Cooper’s tally is probably right, but what it neglects to mention is that the total number of Democratic seats that existed at the beginning of the Obama era was exaggerated to ridiculous heights by public disgust with GOP failures in the Bush/Cheney era. The nation was still largely divided along ideological lines as 2009 got underway, but Democrats managed to have 60 Senate seats that year. It was an unsustainable level, which predictably faded. (It’s a minor miracle Senate Dems held their majority for eight consecutive years.)

Put it this way: in the 109th Congress, a decade ago, Democrats had 45 Senate seats. Ten years later, after five election cycles, Democrats now have … 46 Senate seats. That’s not a collapse; it’s a return to a norm.

The list of Democratic problems isn’t short. They’ve been hurt by gerrymandering. They’ve been crushed in state legislatures. The party’s voters inexplicably refuse to show up unless it’s a leap year. The Republican “war on voting” adds a wrinkle to any attempt at a comeback. Democratic officials have plans on how to put things right, and no one can say with confidence when – or if – those plans will succeed.

But the talk this morning about Democrats facing insurmountable challenges is almost certainly overstated. The party had political capital, which it invested, and which has led Dems back to where they were before.

We’ve seen dynamics like this before; we’ll see them again.

I would add that the unprecedented amount of money unleashed in politics since Citizens United may very well disrupt this historical ebb and flow between the party in power. The old axioms of political science may no longer hold true.

The political system can be so overwhelmed and corrupted by the sheer force of money spent in political campaigns that it can produce the desired outcome for the Plutocrats who are overwhelmingly funding political campaigns today.  They can tip the scales in their favor. With an apathetic and indifferent electorate that does not vote, the Plutocrats can maintain this advantage.

If Democrats would just get off the couch and vote, this Republican advantage could still be blunted if not reversed. Democrats need to learn to vote in every election and down ballot, not just the top of the ticket in presidential elections in a leap year.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has a pair of posts on this topic. Morning Plum: A brutal reality check for the Democratic Party and How badly has the Obama era damaged the Democratic party? It’s complicated.


  1. I’ve voted nothing but Democratic Party since I my first vote for George McGovern in 1972.
    Since I moved here from solidly Democrat Minnesota 13 years ago it’s become perfectly clear to me that people here don’t vote Democrat, not because they’re clueless yahoos, but because the Democratic Party is so completely elitist and out of touch that it presents no alternative worth bothering with.
    The Democratic Party spends all its energy blaming everyone and everything else but itself for its constant dismal failures, and nothing will change until it wakes up and realizes the problem is with itself.
    So far I’m no seeing any sign of that happening myself and Iglesia, in my opinion, nailed it.

    • As an outside observer you made some very astute observations about Arizona Democrats. It won’t change anything because they have a list of usual suspects to blame, as you also observed. It was a good try, though!

  2. steve I first heard this term by a newscaster on nbc news many years ago. if it is good enough for nbc it is good enough for me! and by the that is mighty white of you steve.

    • We used to also hear the “n” word on TV many years ago. And when referring to Mexicans the “w” word was often used. And when referring to Puerto Ricans, the “s” word was often used. Times change, Captain, and the continued use of those old phrases are indicative of racist views. Are you a racist, Captain?

  3. In the 2000 election aftermath the black congressional caucus tried to have the election results looked at by congress but white democrat senators wouldn’t upset their corporate donors and join in. At least this began the dehonkifacation of the democratic party after the is disgusting episode.

    • Why do you feel so free and easy using the racial invective “dehonkifacation” (a play on the old black invective for whites: “honkey”) when discussing white people? You wouldn’t dare use similar racial invectives for blacks or Mexicans or native Americans or any other racial groups. Yet you seem very much at ease using similar slurs against whites. Why do you feel that is acceptable?

    • Jim, that was a VERY interesting article! One of the most straightfoward, balanced and well thought out articles I have read in a long time. It gives a person a lot to think about. We live in interesting times.

      (Of course, that is an old Irish curse: “May you live in interesting times!”)

  4. This doesn’t require a panel of experts or committees to figure out…they need to VOTE IN EVERY ELECTION! Do the duty of being a good citizen and be informed on the issues that affect them and their family. Simple!

      • No real comment here except to point out it has been around since 1789 and was first used effectively by the, (get this), Democratic-Republican Party in 1812. Since then it has been used by political parties and the Courts as a football to accomplish often conflicting tasks. There was a long period when Democrats used it quite effectively to tilt elections in their favor. I assume your complaint is that you feel it somehow aids Republicans now, correct?

        The sad part is that no matter what happens with gerrymandering, it is going to hurt someone. Even with the best, purest intentions in the world, someone gets the short end of the stick when Districts are set up.

          • Nothing in this article discusses the history of gerrymandering which is what I was discussing. Let’s assume the article is true and Republicans have the upper hand in gerrymandering right now. So What? What does that have to do with what happened 50, 60, 80, or 100 years ago? As I said in the first sentence, I wasn’t looking for an argument. The subject of gerrymandering struck me as interesting and when I researched it some interesting historical facts stood out. I was just sharing that information. I had no idea I had thrown down a gauntlet in front of you. I am sorry I insulted you somehow.

        • The part that needed to be nipped in the bud was the “both sides do it” In the modern times that we live in, this tactic is nearly exclusively done by Republicans to fight against the changing demographics that would forever shut them out of govt forever if they didn’t cheat.
          I appreciate that you find this topic interesting and my apologies for seeming to jump down your throat about this…that said, I’ve really had it up to here with the “both sides do it” BS. No. No they don’t. One side does it and it happens to be a feature, not a bug.

          • Thank you for your response. I understand the frustration you feel and I tend to agree with you that Republicans are the beneficiaries of the current gerrymandering. The article you shared gave some pretty decent mathematical models to demonstrate the advantage and I certainly couldn’t find any flaws in the presentation so I can’t dispute it.

  5. cnn has done a show about the 2000 election and while some things were left out the main point was that democrats are quitters and whiners. even mike malloy had to admit whining does no good when a caller asked him what good does liberal whining do.

    • I wouldn’t call what they did as “whining and quitting”. What happened was they tried their usual hissy fits, screaming, and bullying to force a win in an election. Two things went wrong: (1) The 24-hour news cycle actually paid attention and kept the usual Democrat shenanigans from getting very far (such as locking Republicans out of one of the larger “chad” counting rooms), and, (2) the Republicans, for the first time, actually found a backbone and refused to let the Democrats roll over them with their usual crap (and actually met them one on one with demonstrations, protests, and raising hullaballo which shocked the Democrats).

      • The Brooks Brothers protest was arranged, paid for and staged by R operatives. SCOTUS injected themselves into a presidential election and stopped the recount. That was a stolen election and it changed the direction of America, and not for the better. W was and still is a dolt. Now we’re just trying to fix everything, but we’ll never need JEB! the fixer.

        • Paricia, there were recounts finished AFTER the election by major newspapers that showed Bush won the election by actual count. This has been verified over and over and still Democrats insist the election was stolen. It is a fantasy with which Democrats comfort themselves regardless of the facts.

        • And the Democrat protests were arranged, paid for and staged by the Unions beholden to the Democrats for their bread and butter. And your “fixes” have left us $17,000,000,000,000 in debt (soon to be $18,000,000,000,000 in debt). We are still involved in Afghanistan and we are going back into Iraq. Our economy is limping along barely making headway with millions who have simply stopped looking for work. Don’t know how many more of your “fixes” this Country can stand.

  6. The problem is NOT “north of the Gila River.” The problem is NOT the weak Democratic Party… even though both of those are obvious and apparent.

    The fundamental problem is that since the first gilded age (about a century and a half ago), SCOTUS has validated the concept of “free trade” and it is now a part of the fabric of America.

    A century ago, George Hunt did his best (and it was a wonderful thing he did) to lead the Constitutional Convention to establish a Progressive state constitution. He saw and fought the corporate interests, mainly in the “personhood” of mining and railroad corporations.

    Without a focused effort to strike at the root of the problem, we will always be dealing with the problem that Sisyphus never could solve.

    To that end, I recommend Jane Anne Morris’ book, “Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy.” Except that the title might be more accurate if it was phrased in the past tense.

    Morris also established a website worth looking into, DemocracyThemePark (dot) org

    Morris is a corporate anthropologist. Her book details how the heist has been going on since the first gilded age.

    • Great points, AZ Eagletarian. I heard this story on Rachel Maddow last night. She added her usual drama to the presentation of the data: “OMG look at these losses since 2008– since Obama took over.”

      She strongly implied that Obama had something to do with it, but totally left out Citizens United and the GOP’s nationwide push to suppress the vote. I heard a story on NPR last week that said 600,000 people in Texas can’t vote because of that state’s ID laws. There is likely a similar number here in Arizona.

      These losses didn’t happen in a vacuum. We HAVE TO get dark money out of politics and have universal/automatic voter registration.

      • Yes, that story of the 600,000 homeless people who aren’t registered in Texas is making the rounds. There are advocates trying to get them registered to vote. What a great idea…let’s get people who are cut off from society, likely completely uninformed and very possibly mentally ill to vote. That’s an ideal Democrat voting block; easy to find, easy to drive to the polls, and easy to manipulate.

        What you call voter suppression I call voter fraud prevention. I suspect you want national voting laws…it is easier to manipulate one government than it is to manipulate 50 state governments. And if this so called “dark money” was working in favor of Democrats, you would be defending it to the last.

        The truth is that all of these “improvements” are merely ploys that Democrats think will work in favor of Democrats at voting time. “Fairness” is just code speak for manipulating the polls.

  7. this is not disheartening in 2000 the racist arpaio got 61% of vote in 2004 58% of vote. then he went after latino’s. remember march 2006 when the democrat mayor of phoenix got upset about 20,000 latino’s marching against the republican jon kyle immigration polices. 2008 arpaio got 53.5% of vote. In 2012 racist joe got 50.7% of vote see a trend here. the black people call it dehonkifacation of the democratic party. the fred duvals of the democratic party need to go honk some place else!

  8. So many recent election cycles in Arizona have had the same result, and it is disheartening. We moved from Maricopa County in the spring (you all know what it’s like north of the Gila) and were amazed this morning when we found that most of their bond and override elections passed, while Pima County shot down most of them and all the bond options. We HAVE to make a concerted effort to get people registered and OUT TO VOTE in each and every election. The “we’ve got ours, screw you” coalition never sleeps, and they are the ones at the polling places (and in the mailbox) every. single. time.

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