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Down-ballot in the weeds

October 20, 2015

Matt Yglesias has an excellent and rather fiery denouncement of Democratic complacency. His basic point? While the left celebrates its apparent advantage in the electoral college — usually attributed to the demographic skew resulting from the party’s popularity among growing portions of the electorate such as young people, blacks, and immigrants — it’s ignoring the importance of down-ballot races. It’s not just that Democrats fail to win the House or the Senate; they also fail to win state houses and governorships across the nation:

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.

This is incredibly important for Democrats to understand. Because the party’s coalition tends to be more marginally interested in politics anyway, more of its numbers turn out during presidential years than any others. Republicans might have put their stock in the older, whiter, and wealthier segment of the country, but these are exactly the voters who not only have fiercely held beliefs, they’re willing and able to devote the time to pursuing them more frequently than the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years.

And it’s the Republican success in down-ballot races that gives them the confidence in their partisan approach to contemporary politics that outsiders to the party find so befuddling. Think of the GOP point-of-view: Barack Obama might have won two elections in a row, but since 2010, Republicans have won landslide majorities in the House and subsequently taken the Senate, all while building their influence in state governments across the country. From this perspective, the party’s major failing came from putting its faith in moderates like Mitt Romney or John McCain while strong conservatives like Scott Walker have been winning election after election even in a Blue state like Wisconsin.

Philip Klein delineates the difference in how the two parties view the national landscape:

Democrats figure that the coalition of unmarried women, minority groups and young voters aren’t going to back a Republican nominee who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, support voter ID laws, crack down on illegal immigration, oppose efforts to combat climate change, protest gay marriage, and so on. Given their growing confidence that the changing face of America is with them, Democratic voters feel more comfortable letting their liberal flag fly in a way that Bill Clinton would have never dreamed of. His ever-calculating spouse has made the calculation, in the words of the New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin, that “there’s no gen[eral] election downside in aligning w[ith] the left.”

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a completely different calculation. Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, they see Hillary Clinton’s numbers steadily tanking under an ethical cloud, as a growing number of Americans say they don’t trust her. Polls have shown Republicans ahead of Clinton even in Pennsylvania, a blue state that has eluded GOP nominees for decades. They’re confident that her weaknesses as a candidate have made the presidency ripe for the picking. Given this sense of optimism, they see no reason to settle.

I asked Barry Jackson, a veteran of the Bush White House, about this Republican optimism when he visited the Centre earlier this year. This was his reply:

I think the Republicans, nationally and locally, are on an ascendancy. We hold more governorships across the country than has ever happened; we hold more state legislative houses than ever before; Speaker Boehner is presiding over the largest Republican majority since the 1920s, and that tells you an awful lot about the mood of the country. It doesn’t mean that they’ve given Republicans a blank cheque in terms of governance, but it is sending a message on both sides of the aisle that we’re uncomfortable with where things are — so we may give you a chance.

Both Americans and, especially, non-Americans have a habit of ignoring down-ballot races. But state legislatures, as well as city and county councils, are where a lot of American public policy gets made — particularly the type non-Americans find so foreign and incomprehensible about the country: gun regulations, abortion laws, labour and welfare policy. Democrats are making a big mistake when they focus on the White House to the exclusion of these less glamorous but just as important engines of government.

Yglesias chides liberals for focusing “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.” He’s right, and as much as I agree with some of Sanders’s policy proposals, this ideological narcissism does frustrate me about his campaign. But the larger problem doesn’t concern the ideology of Sanders’s supporters, but that they’re applying it to the wrong race.

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee because he is seeking to represent a party that, at the peak of its political powers, could only muster a coalition strong enough to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as its health care reform and Dodd–Frank as its financial reform. It has not been able to pass meaningful climate change legislation or immigration reform. The problem is not the president at the top, but the rank-and-file representatives that make up the party.

Anyone who belives Bernie Sanders is the right thing for the Democratic Party should not be trying to get him elected president; they should be trying to vote more men and women like Sanders into the Senate — as well as the House, and in legislatures and governorships across America. Don’t send Bernie Sanders to Washington; find the Bernie Sanders of Wisconsin or West Virginia and back them.

After all, Barack Obama’s success lay in good part on former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s fifty state strategy: the nationwide electoral effort that gave the party major victories in the 2006 midterms. And it’s that strategy that has ensured Republicans remain influential in American politics, even as they find control of the White House an increasingly elusive prospect.

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