President Obama's speech at a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser in D.C. last night contained a key pearl of political wisdom for his party. Here it is:
If there’s one message I want to deliver today to every Democrat and every person who’s interested in supporting Democratic policies, it’s that you got to pay attention to the states. You have to stay focused on what’s happening in the states, and you especially have to pay attention to what’s happening in the states during midterm elections. Because we know how to win national elections, but all too often, it’s during these midterms where we end up getting ourselves into trouble, because I guess we don’t think it’s sexy enough. But the fact of the matter is, is that that’s where so much of the action is.
Obama is exactly right. His party -- from the donor community to the activists -- gets very excited about presidential elections but tends to lose interest (at least when compared to Republicans) in midterm elections. Put another way: Democrats love the Super Bowl; they are less attracted to the mid-season game between two teams they probably haven't heard of. (Browns-Vikings...it's fantastic!) Young people -- a key pillar of the Obama coalition -- tend to stray from politics during midterms. Attempts by Democratic operatives in past midterm elections to build outside organizations to battle conservative groups on the airwaves fizzled for lack of interest. And so on and so forth.
That lack of focus/interest has hurt Democrats nationally far more than the average person -- or even the average political junkie -- understands. The 2010 election is a perfect example of this reality. While most people focus on the 63-seat Republican gain that brought them control of the House, what often gets lost is the remarkable turnover in governorships and state legislatures.
Republicans picked up eight governorships in 2010 -- including critical swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. They also held on to the governorship in Florida. The change at the state legislative level was even more striking -- and arguably more impactful.
Here's a map of partisan control -- via the National Conference of State Legislatures -- in state legislatures across the country before the 2010 election:
And here's what that map looked like after the 2010 election:
Republicans have added over 675 seats to their ranks in this election, dramatically surpassing 1994 gains. This number could go even higher as the tallies in the undecided races are determined. The success by Republicans at the state level could give the GOP a dramatic advantage in the redistricting cycle that will start in just a few short months. The Census Bureau will deliver data to legislatures in early February. There are many caveats when it comes to redistricting, especially given the legal complexity of the task and the inevitable litigation. But Republicans are in the best shape for the decennial line-drawing they have been in since the modern era of redistricting began in the 1970s.
Boy was Storey right. Republican gains in 2010 led to a redistricting process nationwide in 2011 that entrenched the Republican House majority, making it very difficult -- though not impossible -- for Democrats to recapture the chamber any time soon.
And, the impact of the 2010 midterm elections at the gubernatorial and state legislative level also had considerable policy consequences. The most high-profile of those was Gov. Scott Walker's successful fight to outlaw collective bargaining for public sector unions in Wisconsin. More abortion restrictions were passed in state legislatures between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire previous decade combined. In the first six months of 2011 alone, six states passed stricter voter ID laws. You get the idea.
There is some evidence that Democratic donors have woken up. The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic-aligned super PAC designed to run ads in Senate races, collected almost $9 million in 2013. House Majority PAC, a mirror group for House races, raised almost $8 million. And, because Democrats were so badly swamped in 2010 at the state and local level, the party does have ample opportunity to makes gains -- with GOP-controlled governors in Pennsylvania and Florida in deep trouble.
Still, most Democratic strategists -- including the current occupant of the White House -- will acknowledge that state and local contests, particularly in a midterm election, are the one place where the Republican infrastructure (funders + organizations + activists) trumps their own. And, as 2010 showed, that's a major problem for the party.