Vox To Democrats: It's Time To Admit That You Have A Problem At The State Level

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Oct 22, 2015 7:30 PM
Vox To Democrats: It's Time To Admit That You Have A Problem At The State Level

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. The left leaning Vox news outlet already has stated that mass shootings represent a small proportion of all gun violence. Now, they’re touching upon the Democratic Party’s woes at the state-level. Matthew Yglesias wrote what Republicans have known for a while–that Democrats are in “deep trouble” at the state and local level. They’re in “denial,” and it’s time to recognize they have a problem:

…[E]ven 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.

Yglesias also noted that the GOP is “flexible”:

Liberals accustomed to chuckling over the ideological rigor of the House GOP caucus won't want to hear this, but one of the foundations of the GOP's broad national success is a reasonable degree of ideological flexibility.

Essentially every state on the map contains overlapping circles of rich people who don't want to pay taxes and business owners who don't want to comply with labor, public health, and environmental regulations. In states like Texas or South Carolina, where this agenda nicely complements a robust social conservatism, the GOP offers that up and wins with it. But in a Maryland or a New Jersey, the party of business manages to throw up candidates who either lack hard-edged socially conservative views or else successfully downplay them as irrelevant in the context of blue-state governance.

As I’ve written before, Republicans have been investing in state and local races since the 1990s. They’ve been winning, and it’s here where congressional maps are drawn. Republicans control the most state legislative seats since 1920, and two-thirds of the governorships are in GOP hands. In half of the states in the country, the Republican Party has unified control. Hence, why there is the assumption (and it’s a pretty good one) that the House will be in Republican hands for at least a generation. Yglesias aptly notes that this kills a Democratic agenda at the federal level, and that there is no plan from the House Democratic leadership to reclaim the majority. Yes, he noted that Democrats have had success at the presidential level, but it’s not an overwhelming advantage:

The 51 percent of the vote obtained by Barack Obama in 2012 was hardly a landslide, early head-to-head polling of 2016 indicates a close race, and there's always a chance that unexpected bad news will hit the US economy or impair our national security.

Winning a presidential election would give Republicans the overwhelming preponderance of political power in the United States — a level of dominance not achieved since the Democrats during the Great Depression, but with a much more ideologically coherent coalition. Nothing lasts forever in American politics, but a hyper-empowered conservative movement would have a significant ability to entrench its position by passing a national right-to-work law and further altering campaign finance rules beyond the Citizens United status quo.

Yeah, I have no problem with any of that, but Vox is a left leaning publication. Nevertheless, at some level, Democrats recognize they have a problem; the DNC’s vice chair, Donna Brazile, has called the Democratic disintegration at the state level a “crime.” While the Republican State Leadership Committee has a $125 million effort over the next several years called REDMAP 2020, which aims to maintain and expand Republican majorities at the state level, Democrats have a $70 million project–Advantage 2020–to reclaim that lost ground in time for the next census.

Right now, The RSLC is investing heavily in Virginia’s upcoming state races, but also have interest in other races in Mississippi, Missouri, Washington State, Louisiana, and Kentucky.

Virginia is a critical point for Republicans this year, as all 140 legislative seats are up for re-election. While Republicans enjoy a supermajority in the House of Delegates, they have a meager two-seat (21-19) majority in the senate. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe will once again probably push for Medicaid expansion in his two year budget proposal due in December, which makes holding the senate all the more critical. The RSLC has devoted $250,000 to those key senate races. One candidate of theirs, Nancy Dye, who is running against Democratic incumbent John Edwards in Senate District 21, has outraised him. According to WBDJ7, Dye raised $249,939, $90,000 of which came from the RSLC, for the month of September. Edwards raised a tad over $200,000, but he did clinch an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Senate District 10 has become “ground zero” for control of the upper chamber, given Republican State Sen. John Watkins’ retirement. Here, Democrat Dan Gecker and Republican Glen Sturtevant have both received huge sums of money from their parties:

Gecker raised a total of $501,570 between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30, more than any other state Senate candidate, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday. Sturtevant raised $446,632 in the period, to finish third in the state.

[…]

In September, Gecker’s campaign received $140,000 in cash from McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC and “in kind” contributions — donated goods or services — of $128,060 from the Democratic Party of Virginia, $95,018 from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters PAC and $14,582 from Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC.

Such donated services often include help with advertising, such as the fliers stuffing mailboxes in the 10th District, which is made up of parts of Chesterfield County and the city of Richmond and all of Powhatan County.

Gecker’s September cash contributions also included $5,250 from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters PAC, $5,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC and $5,000 from Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Sturtevant’s September cash contributions included $180,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee; $77,800 from the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus; $24,000 from Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg; $15,000 from Middle Resolution PAC Inc.; $10,000 from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg; and $10,000 from the GOPAC Election Fund.

Yet, Kentucky's gubernatorial election is looking grim for Republicans. The state has been something of an anomaly; it has the only chamber, the State House of Representatives–that’s one of the last bastions of Democratic control in the south. And the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Matt Bevin, who challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2014 senate primary, could blow the whole thing in a race that shouldn't be hard for Republicans:

Things were looking rosy for Republicans in Kentucky. And then came Matt Bevin. Again. The Tea Party outsider had tried to oust McConnell in a primary challenge, and had been routed. But a year later, he squeaked out a victory (by 83 votes!) in the GOP gubernatorial primary over the party’s preferred candidate, James Comer. Republicans—McConnell included—reluctantly embraced their unlikely standard-bearer, but Bevin’s path to the governor’s office has not been smooth.

Conway has vastly outspent Bevin on television, and the Democrat has maintained a small but sturdy lead in the polls. Republicans have been frustrated both by Bevin’s frequent missteps and by the manufacturing executive’s hesitance to put much of his own money into his campaign. Late last month, the Republican Governors Association pulled its TV ads for Bevin, sending a signal it believed the race was lost. Bevin responded by putting up a million dollars worth of commercials on his own, and on Tuesday morning, the RGA announced it was going back on the air for the last two weeks of the race. “We decided to go back in because we’ve been doing the polling, and the polling shows the race very winnable,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson told me.

Republican and Democratic operatives agree on two points: The race between Bevin and Conway has been overwhelmingly negative, and turnout will be low. “Nobody has momentum,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP consultant in Kentucky. Democrats have tried to seize on Bevin’s shaky standing among Republicans and hammered him for inconsistent and erratic statements. He’s wavered, for example, on whether he would cancel Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion, and in a recent debate, he appeared to confuse Medicare and Medicaid.

Nevertheless, Democrats have a long way to go in rebuilding their party at the state level, which is where their new talent will be found. Right now, the Democratic talent pipeline looks quite empty, even with Republican setbacks. One of those being ceding the largest cities in the country to Democrats, but that's a tale for another time.