If you care about the long term prospects of the Democratic Party, here’s something to start paying attention to right now: The gubernatorial races in the next few cycles. Their outcome could help determine what the next decade’s redistricting outcomes could look like — which in turn could help influence Democratic chances of winning back the House of Representatives, and controlling Congress, in the near future.
And with government gridlocked on the national level, both progressives and conservatives alike will increasingly try to advance their agendas on the state level. The 2014 elections left Democrats in a deep state-level hole: Republicans control over 30 governorships and two-thirds of partisan legislative chambers; they are in total control of state government in 24 states, while Democrats can only say that about six states.
Connecticut governor Dan Malloy, who is set to take over the Democratic Governors Association next year, will play a key role in setting party strategy and helping Democrats chart a way out of this wilderness. In 2016, there are key governors’ races in North Carolina (the biggest Dem pickup opportunity), West Virgina, Missouri, and others; in 2018 there are likely to be as many as 20 contested gubernatorial contests, including a dozen in GOP-held states that Obama won twice, and many in key swing states.
Malloy was elected twice in terrible years for Democrats — 2010 and 2014 — while emphasizing a progressive agenda that includes higher taxes on the wealthy; tax relief for the poor; boosted spending on infrastructure and education; a minimum wage hike; paid sick leave; and more. Malloy has regularly exhorted fellow Dems to campaign more aggressively on core Democratic priorities. But will that help Democrats solve their state-level travails? A lightly edited and condensed transcript of my conversation with him follows.
THE PLUM LINE: Democrats seem to be in a pretty deep hole on the state level. What are the prospects for beginning to reverse this?
GOVERNOR DAN MALLOY: It’s going to take a four year cycle, not a two year cycle, to turn this back. Democrats have to adopt the Republican concept of constant campaigning. Democrats tend to think of elections as cycles. Republicans don’t: It’s ongoing and constant.
PLUM LINE: The marquee race in 2016 is in North Carolina. State House Speaker Thom Tillis got elected to the Senate even though he was directly tied to the hard right turn of the state government. Doesn’t that bode badly for ousting Governor Pat McCrory?
MALLOY: Every day that goes by is a bad day for Pat McCrory. Attorney General Roy Cooper is well liked and well respected and has practically no negatives. Cooper has a two to one favorability rating. McCrory’s favorability rating is at 42-39, and it’s only going to get worse for him.
PLUM LINE: But Democrats in the last cycle lost in states where there was a stiff backlash to conservative state level policies, not just in North Carolina, but in Kansas and Wisconsin. If Democrats can’t win when conservative policies are either deeply unpopular or visibly failing, what does it say about the Democratic strategy going forward in governors’ races?
MALLOY: It says we forgot to speak about issues of importance to the voters. There is an overall message that is about who Republicans are and who Democrats are. We have to apply that message to state government, and we have to do it effectively and on a sustained basis. We know that raising the minimum wage is very popular, in particular among women. We know Republicans are against it. That was an important issue in allowing me to win Connecticut.
PLUM LINE: You hung on in a tough climate with a policy agenda premised on the idea that Democrats need to be Democrats. Is that a template you’ll urge Democrats to adopt in 2016 and 2018? If so, why would we assume that template will work in purple states?
MALLOY: Democrats should be Democrats. People understand that no one should go to work when they’re sick. What I am saying to candidates is, do your research. Simply because you’re a Democrat doesn’t mean you can’t speak to these issues in language that appeals to voters, particularly independent voters. There are issues where Republican Party is dead wrong, and we have not capitalized.
PLUM LINE: The winners of the 2018 races will have great influence over redistricting of House and state legislative districts. What does the picture look like?
MALLOY: The 2018 picture looks very good. There are many states where the sitting governor will be term-limited. We will pick up Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. There are other states we will pick up. We’re not gonna lose California. We’re gonna pick up Maryland. These are states we need to pick up to have someone keeping people honest when Republicans jerry-rig a built-in advantage in the Congress. We need to figure out whether we can pick up five, eight, 10 state House and Senate seats in the legislature in some of these states to make sure there’s a Democratic presence at the table. We’ve got to move more rapidly in the court system.
Democrats make a tremendous mistake in thinking about elections as cycles. They’re not. This is a constant campaign. We have to do a better job of speaking to working men and working women. We have to expose Republicans for the frauds that they are when it comes to what they want to do for working men and women.
PLUM LINE: How large are the stakes for the Democratic Party in 2018? We’re really looking at whether Democrats can capture back the House in the next decade, aren’t we?
MALLOY: I believe we are. It is vitally important. And we have to think of it that way. We also have the 2020 elections, which will be decided before redistricting.
PLUM LINE: In 2014, many high profile swing state gubernatorial races that Dems thought they might win — Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan — slipped away. Republicans won surprise victories in blue states like Maryland and Illinois. Isn’t the problem that Democrats still don’t know how to deal with the midterm dropoff among their voters? What will stop that from happening in 2018, when all these big governors’ races are at stake?
MALLOY: I don’t think Democrats in most cases have come up with a strategy for that drop-off. We did in Connecticut. That’s why I’m still standing. We had a 56 percent participation rate. We contacted voters over an 18-month period of time. Republicans have done an exceptionally good job of making their voters feel like they’re part of a team. We need to replicate that. We need to make our voters feel like they are part of a team, that this is a continuing process, that every year there’s an election of importance. We need to retrain our voters.
No one is confused about what a Democrat is in a presidential election. In every election other than a presidential election, our voters are confused. We’ve given out too many different messages.