Democrats have a depth problem

August 27, 2014

This is not the Democrats' bench. Heck, it's not even the Miami Heat's bench anymore. (Reuters/Mike Stone)

The implosion of Ed FitzGerald's gubernatorial campaign is painful for Ohio Democrats because he was supposed to be their Next Big Thing.

It's particularly devastating, though, because he's basically all they had. Behind him, the cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to recruiting capable Democrats into big-time statewide campaigns.

But how is that possible? How could Ohio, one of the nation's premier swing states and a political mecca if there ever was one, have such a thin Democratic bench?

It's actually pretty simple: They have very little farm system (to borrow a baseball term). And that's because Republicans, as they have done in several key states, have taken it away from them.

As I noted Tuesday, Ohio Democrats control just one-quarter of the state's 16 congressional seats, less than one-third of the state Senate, less than 40 percent of the state House and none of the state's five statewide constitutional offices. None of these numbers are coincidences. Republicans snapped up a lot of territory in the 2010 wave election and gave themselves the right to redraw Ohio's congressional, state House and state Senate maps. The gerrymandering that ensued made it very hard for Democrats to compete on any of these maps for the next decade.

It's not hard to follow the logic from there. A GOP-friendly map = fewer Democrats = a much smaller Democratic farm system. The fact that Democrats have just four members of the U.S. House -- to the GOP's 12 -- and none of the five statewide constitutional officers means they don't have many obvious recruits-in-waiting for Senate or governor. (These are the positions, after all, that tend to take that next step. About 75 percent of the non-incumbents running in key Senate races come from these two recruiting bays.)

And when it comes to recruiting for Congress and these statewide offices, Democrats have problems there, too. The fact that there are five GOP state legislators for every three Democrats means Republicans have a massively bigger pool of potential recruits to pull from for those more intermediate statewide offices and congressional seats. It's a problem that really runs from the statehouse up.

Unfortunately for Democrats, it's not a problem just in Ohio. This is an emerging issue for them in as many as eight key swing and blue-leaning states which comprise basically one-fourth of the American political map.

In these eight states -- Florida, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- the average percentage of Democrats is:

  • 31 percent in their congressional delegations
  • 39 percent in their state Houses
  • 37 percent in their state Senates
  • 38 percent in their statewide constitutional offices

That's right, across these eight states -- seven of which President Obama won in 2008 and six of which he carried in 2012 -- Democrats can't crack 40 percent in any of the key farm systems. They don't even control a state House or state Senate in one of them.

Here's the percentage of Democrats in each category, state by state:

As bad as these numbers look for Democrats, they are compounded by a couple of things:

1) There really isn't an inverse in which Democrats have decimated the GOP bench in a swing state.

2) It's not just the few seats Democrats controls; it's the type of seats they control.

The name of the game in redistricting, after all, is to pack your opponents into as few districts as possible, while making all the other districts lean toward your side (ideally enough so that the incumbent won't be in serious danger).

The practical effect of that is that Republicans in these states have created a lot of very homogeneous Democratic districts and a lot of marginally Republican districts in which the incumbents are probably safe but still has to mind their Ps and Qs.

Here's what that looks like in Florida, using the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index (PVI):


So while 11 Florida districts lean Republican by seven or fewer points, just one Democratic-leaning district is even remotely competitive.

Want to guess which kind of district is more likely to produce a credible candidate for statewide office? Hint: It's not the district where the incumbent only has to impress his or her heavily liberal constituents.

And it's not just Florida. In Ohio, none of the four districts held by Democrats went less than 63 percent for Obama in 2012. In Pennsylvania, only one of the five Democratic-held districts went less than 2-to-1 for the president. And in North Carolina, none of the three Democratic-leaning congressional seats that Republicans drew gave Obama less than 70 percent of the vote two years ago.

It's a recipe for long-term recruiting problems for Democrats. And we're seeing that in stark relief in Ohio.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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