Not long after the 2014 debacle, leading Democratic Party figures began focusing on a profound problem Democrats now faced over the long term: The deep, deep hole the party has dug for itself in on the level of the states.
Democratic Party fundraisers, activists and strategists recognized early this year that this deficit must be addressed, because it’s allowing major GOP policy advances on the state level, and imperiling Democratic chances (due to the role of state legislatures in redistricting, which will happen again after 2020) of winning back the House anytime soon. Republicans control a majority of governorships and an even larger majority of state legislatures.
This problem received a new burst of attention this week when Vox’s Matthew Yglesias published a piece painting the Dem state-level woes in unusually vivid and sobering terms, arguing that Dems are “in denial” about them and “don’t even admit that they exist.” Some on the left pushed back, noting it is unfair to say Democrats are unaware of this; indeed, some Dems have been publicly and privately discussing what to do about it for a year. But Yglesias is right about the enormity of the problem. He’s also right that it’s unclear whether Dems have come up with an adequate solution to it or whether enough of them are focused on just how serious it is.
One possible answer lies in winning back governorships. That’s not just because governors obviously wield great influence over state policy; it’s also because they can exercise far more influence over redistricting (the province of state legislatures) in most states than is commonly known. Thus, Democratic strategists are looking at this problem as one that may take four years of gubernatorial races to turn around.
I talked to Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association — which oversees gubernatorial races — about the depth of the difficulties Democrats face and what can be done about it. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows:
THE PLUM LINE: What is the four year cycle?
ELISABETH PEARSON: We have governors’ races every year. We have three this year, 12 in 2016, and 38 in 2017 and 2018. Within four years, we’ll see an election in every state. There’s the potential for an enormous amount of turnover in the next four years. Unlike the last four year cycle, there are a huge number of open seats in this four year cycle.
The big years are 2017 and 2018, when we have 38 races. Nine out of 10 of the largest states are up in that cycle. There will be at least 20 or more open seats. We see the greatest ability to change governorships when there are open seats. There’s a huge amount of potential, particularly in open-seat states that Obama won twice: Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, Iowa. There are 12 states in the 2018 cycle that have Republican governors that Obama won. That’s huge for us. That’s why we see a four year cycle.
PLUM LINE: A major challenge Democrats face is winning back the House. You have argued that governors can play a role in reversing the redistricting tide, which might surprise some people, given that a lot of this is settled by state legislatures. What’s the role of governors in this?
PEARSON: Governors play a huge role in redistricting. In 35 states they have the ability to sign or veto maps. Governors are obviously very engaged with legislatures in coming up with potential maps and have a lot of leverage. Ultimately if the maps don’t look like they should, the governor can veto them and they go to the courts. We’ve seen that happen in Virginia.
Eighteen of those 35 states are states that we are targeting as important for potential pickup. Let’s say we had fair maps in those 18 states. By our calculations, that would mean about 44 Congressional seats that would move from Republican to Democratic.
PLUM LINE: Even granting that, isn’t the picture on the state legislative level pretty bleak?
PEARSON: Obviously it’s ideal for the legislatures to be Democratic. But even if we have Republican legislatures in these states, but we have Democratic governors, they are not only at the table and involved in the process; they are able to veto maps. That’s a very big deal.
PLUM LINE: Isn’t it true that there is a tendency among national donors and party elites to focus more on presidential campaigns and glitzy Senate races than on the nuts and bolts of this state level stuff?
PEARSON: Yes. No doubt this has been problematic for Democrats. There has not been as much focus on state level politics. That has not been the case on the Republican side. We have seen the results of that. What encourages me is that the leadership in our party and the grassroots from top to bottom are really focusing a lot more on how important state politics are. The dysfunction in D.C. is helping us make our case.
That energy is really shifting. When we talk to donors and activists and people who care about the Democratic Party, they are focusing much more on state level politics. Redistricting is an important part of the argument that is resonating with people. We’ve got catching up to do, for sure. But that’s what we’re focused on — making people understand how important this is.
PLUM LINE: There’s no denying that on a policy level, Republicans and conservatism have made tremendous gains in some of these state level battles.
PEARSON: Right. We’re seeing this play out all over the country. While in some instances it’s not what Democrats want to see, it does draw attention again and again to the fact that what is happening in states is critically important.
PLUM LINE: The Democratic presidential candidates are striking some very populist and liberal notes. How does that resonate on the state level? Is it helpful? Are there states in which that can hurt?
PEARSON: There are obviously divisive issues from state to state. But the overall Democratic message — talking about supporting the middle class and the work that needs to be done to focus on the people in the middle, not the top — works for us. And that’s the message a lot of our candidates will be talking about.
PLUM LINE: How deep is the hole? How much work will it take to get out of it?
PEARSON: We are definitely in a hole. And we need to win more governorships. It will take a four year cycle for us to begin to start to dig out of the hole. This is at least a four-year effort for us. But it also provides a huge amount of potential. We need to make sure the infrastructure is there and the candidates are there.