Obama Leaves Democratic Party in Shambles
The outgoing president will leave the GOP with historic control of government at every level
When will James Carville stop writing stupid books?
He could be given a pass after 2008 election of President Obama, when he penned a book titled, “40 More Years,” an assertion of how long the Democrats would have one party rule. But after the elections of 2010 and 2014, he nevertheless wrote the pre-2016 book, “We’re Still Right, They’re Still Wrong” that asserted that Donald Trump’s candidacy marked the pending implosion of the Republican Party, doomed to roam in the wilderness.
Make no mistake about the historical significance. Obama’s two terms surpassed the losses of past two-term presidents in modern history.
It’s clear that post-Obama, the Democrats must worry about their future with a decimated bench of future candidates after massive losses at the state level.
“These new state-level leaders are part of the approximately 900 state legislative seats that Democrats have lost in the Obama era,” said a news release last week from the Republican State Leadership Committee. “They are part of the farm team who are stepping up to lead in higher office: leaders like former Virginia Delegate Barbara Comstock, re-elected to the U.S. House this week, and former state Senator Joni Ernst, two years into her first term as a U.S. senator. Meanwhile, the lack of a bench forced Democrats to run retread candidates like Ted Strickland and Russ Feingold, whose old ideas were rejected by voters.”
Practically the only bench Democrats can draw from is big city mayors, where they have always had an advantage.
Neither Carville nor Obama expected the president would fundamentally transform America in an unintended way — massively expanding the Republican Party. No doubt, Donald Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — states Republicans haven’t won since the 1980s — were at least in part due to Obama’s last eight years.
During Obama’s term, a total of 35 state legislative chambers flipped to Republicans after the GOP picked up chambers in Kentucky, Iowa and Minnesota this year, according to tallies announced by the RSLC. But, after taking some losses, Republicans hold 68 of the 99 state legislative chambers in the country.
The gravity of controlling state legislatures can be overlooked in the wake of a national election. But legislatures are extremely important for determining who controls the U.S. House of Representatives by drawing up district maps. So long as the GOP can keep a lock on the statehouses after the 2020 Census, Republicans will have a structural advantage for the foreseeable future.
The gravity hasn’t escaped Obama — who will devote much of his post-presidency to helping Democrats redraw district lines. As president, he blamed many of the Republican gains on gerrymandering, and will be help raise money for the new 527, the Democratic National Redistricting Committee — a group that former Attorney General Eric Holder will chair.
Obama can’t blame unfriendly maps on the loss of 13 Democratic U.S. Senate seats and 14 governorships during his presidency. Democrats picked up Senate seats in Illinois and New Hampshire this year, but still fell short of majority. Democrats also picked up six U.S. House seats, a nominal GOP loss that was bound to happen given their massive majority. This year, Republicans also picked up governorships in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
So with these big structural national advantages, conservatives have to step up. Of course the Republican majority must unite behind a conservative agenda Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan can agree on. However, this long-term strength makes room for a little healthy disunity. Conservatives can’t allow a repeat of the profligate spending and growing government that occurred under Bush and a GOP-controlled Congress.
For Democrats, one would think unity would come out of necessity, but the party seems poised to devour itself in the fight over a Democratic National Committee chairmanship. When Howard Dean took the chairmanship in 2005, many Democrats feared he was too extreme. This year, running for the post again, Dean seems like the moderate in the race. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is backing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for the chairmanship and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley may also be making a run.
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To be fair, Democrats managed to flip three state legislative chambers — the New Mexico House and both chambers in Nevada. Of note, the Alaska House will be functionally run by Democrats. Despite having a numerical Republican majority, a group of Republicans broke to give a coalition control to Democrats. Still, Democrats turned their guns on winning back legislative chambers in Maine, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — and failed. Meanwhile, in deep blue Connecticut, Republicans tied in the state Senate, 18-18.
Let’s not engage in hyperbole. This is not the end of the Democratic Party. Recall the media narrative in 2009 matched Carville’s “40 More Years” book, declaring Republicans were doomed to be a Southern regional party. And, hey, before that, after George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, there was significant chatter about the “permanent Republican majority” — even among so-called experts who weren’t happy about the prospect.
The truth is, Democrats can assuredly regain the Senate and win back a majority of governorships — which are statewide races. It is plausible that even under current map, with certain political circumstances, Democrats could regain the House — but it would likely be short-term, similar to the Democratic sweep in 2006 that held for only four years.
Make no mistake about the historical significance. Obama’s two terms surpassed the losses of past two-term presidents in modern history, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, with the most profound showing in state legislative losses, for which Obama doubled the historical average.
George W. Bush, for example, lost just seven governors, nine Senate seats, 42 House seats, 324 legislative seats, and 13 legislative chambers to Democrats during his presidency. Bill Clinton saw 524 state legislative seats, 18 legislative chambers, and 52 House and Senate seats go to Republicans. Ronald Reagan lost just 27 House and Senate seats to Democrats, and state legislative losses were in single digits. The Nixon/Ford administrations, including the disastrous post-Watergate election, came closest with a flip of 31 state legislative chambers to Democrats, 800 state legislative seats, and 28 total House and Senate seats and 15 governorships going to Democrats. Interestingly enough, the popular Dwight Eisenhower had a loss of 21 state legislatures and 843 legislative seats, along with a total of 60 House and Senate seats lost to Democrats. Still — none match what Obama wrought on his party.
Ultimately, Democrats still face a structural disadvantage. The Republican Senate majority is narrow after the 2016 election, when Republicans had a difficult Senate map to defend and Trump was a big help to Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
But the Senate races for 2018 are even more unfavorable to Democratic senators, who have to defend seats in red strongholds of Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia — all states Trump handily won.
Sure, traditionally the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections, the most recent two exceptions being 1998 and 2002. But Trump has proven traditional rules no longer apply, which could continue to be good news for Republicans.