U.S. President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leave the Gabriel Zimmerman room on Capitol Hill, June 12, 2015 in Washington, D.C. 
Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

Democrats struggle with the down-ballot blues

Republican 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.
 
Observers may occasionally hear general discussions about Democrats enjoying a demographic advantage – older, white voters largely dominate the Republican base in a country that’s increasingly diverse – but that edge doesn’t appear to manifest itself in any kind of electoral benefit for Democratic candidates. There’s no sugarcoating any of this, and party officials who deny the problems are fooling themselves.
 
But 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.
 
 

Barack Obama

Democrats struggle with the down-ballot blues