Democrats’ Plan to Win Down-ballot Races? Um…They Don’t Have One

The 2015 elections are over. But if you ask many, if not most, Americans they’re likely unaware that  elections were even being held this year. Instead, almost all eyes are focused on the 2016 presidential elections and the seemingly bottomless well of juicy storylines the race is generating.

In some ways that works to Republicans advantage. But it’s not because, as Democrats argue, Republicans benefit from low voter turnout, which typically means that minority and youth voters stayed home. Instead, it has everything to do with being able to quietly dominate the races that most closely impact American’s everyday lives: state legislative and governors races.

Republicans’ unprecedented wins at the state level (we’ve gained 913 state legislature seats since President Obama took office) are critically important. It means that Republicans have access to plenty of “laboratories of democracy,” which can serve as policy incubators and pilot sites to test out the next great idea. It also means that Republicans have a great farm system (to steal a baseball term) from which they can identify and cultivate the next generational of national leaders.

But, as Chris Cillizza writes for the Washington Post, it also suggests something more immediately satisfying: The party’s message isn’t broken.

It’s hard to overstate how important those GOP gains — and the consolidation of them we’ve seen in the last few years — are to the relative fates of the two parties. While the story at the national level suggests a Republican Party that is growing increasingly white, old and out of step with the country on social issues, the narrative at the local level is very different. Republicans are prospering at the state level in ways that suggest that the party’s messaging is far from broken.

What that means is that although the party has somehow been branded at the national level with being just a bunch of old, white people, the state and local parties don’t wear the same scarlet letter. In fact, they’re making it a point to seek out and recruit minority candidates through initiatives like the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project. That may sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, but the numbers speak for themselves. In 2014 alone, the project recruited 240 new diverse candidates to run for state-level office, got 43 of them elected, and has their eye on raising many of them to leadership. The PAC, along with the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project has elevated their goals for 2016.

These types of investments in communication, candidate recruitment, voter outreach and policy development matter in the long term. Take, for instance, Ted Cruz, who was elected as Texas’ solicitor general before winning his bid for the U.S. Senate. Or Marco Rubio, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, became the youngest Speaker of the House in state history, and was elected to the Senate. Both are now running for president alongside other minority candidates like Gov. Bobby Jindal and Dr. Ben Carson.

Democrats are slowly beginning to recognize the problem they have at the state and local level. Hillary Clinton is already holding meetings with local officials vowing to “fix the party infrastructure that withered under President Barack Obama.” But she faces an uphill battle because, as Andrew Levison wrote in 2014 for The New Republic, many Democrats simply don’t want to have to rebuild a state party infrastructure that has “atrophied for several decades” when the White House is up for grabs.

“Many Democrats would prefer not to have to face this monumental organizational challenge, hoping instead that the existing Obama coalition and demographic changes in America will prove sufficient to elect a president in 2016, hold the Senate, and weaken GOP control over the House of Representatives,” wrote Levison.

Of course, Democrats would go on to lose the Senate and make nary a dent in the House majority that year. And right now, the race to the White House isn’t exactly a shoo in for Democrats either. So how does the party go about challenging Republican dominance in state and local races? Democrats have few ideas. But they do have one:

Overall, there’s nothing wrong with the Democrats that losing the presidency probably won’t fix, and by the same token, the best way for the Republicans to risk their majorities in the Senate, House, and governorships is to win the White House in 2016.

Yes. In order to win, they must lose. Personally, I like that plan.


Chart credit: Bruce Mehlman