If you care about whether the Democratic Party can rebuild itself anytime soon out of the smoking wreckage left behind by the disastrous 2016 elections, something very important is happening a lot sooner than you think.
Of course, the current state of affairs is dire indeed. Not only has the Democratic Party been shut out of Washington, where the GOP controls both the White House and Congress, but the carnage is widespread on the state level, too: Next year, Republicans will control more than 30 governors’ mansions nationwide, and have total control (meaning GOP governors and GOP control of both state legislative chambers) in some 25 states. By contrast, Democrats will have total control in all of five states. The 2018 Senate map looks grim for any prospects of a Dem takeover, and the House is all but certain to remain out of reach in 2018 as well.
But the other part of the story is that, in 2017 and 2018, there will be a total of 38 gubernatorial contests. Here, courtesy of the Democratic Governors Association, is the 2017-2018 gubernatorial map:
Of these races, those that will feature Republicans defending GOP-held seats (depicted in red and pink) will vastly outnumber those that will feature Democrats defending Dem-held seats (depicted in blue). The vast majority of these races take place in 2018 (only two, Virginia and New Jersey, take place next year), so we’re really talking about the 2018 map here. It has big transformative potential for Democrats, since many of the states in which Republicans are defending seats are ones Barack Obama (and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton) won.
There are four reasons why these contests are so important to the long-term prospects of the Democratic Party:
1) They represent a major opportunity to reverse the tremendous state-level damage done to Democrats in 2010. In 2018, for the first time, a number of GOP governors who were swept into power amid the 2010 Tea Party wave will be term-limited out. These include some of the most conservative public officials in the country, such as Rick Scott in Florida and Paul LePage in Maine, as well as GOP governors in key swing states, such as Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio. As the above map indicates, the GOP will be defending 14 open seats in 2018.
“We’re replaying the 2010 cycle, when we were wiped out,” Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, tells me. “It is extremely hard to beat incumbents. After a wave year like 2010, it really takes eight years to change it in a big way nationally. This is the first real chance to take our country back at the state level.”
2) Winning back gubernatorial mansions could have real impact over the redistricting of the House in the next decade. It’s often overlooked, but governors — and not just state legislatures — can help influence redistricting. That’s because in most states, governors can veto redistricting schemes, meaning that at a minimum, Dem governors might be able at least to prevent the worst redistricting outcomes. And those elected in 2018 will influence the next round of redistricting, which is set to take place after the 2020 census.
Pearson says that Democrats can make a difference by winning back states like Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, which could boost the number of Dem Congressional seats in them merely by making the maps fairer. “Even with fair maps, we’re talking about three or four Congressional seats per state,” Pearson says of those three examples, adding that nationally, it’s possible that 20-30 Congressional seats might be more in play for Democrats “if we have a good cycle.”
Of course, redistricting is not the only problem — Dems also suffer from inefficient voter distribution patterns that pack Dems into urban districts, wasting a lot of votes. “But right now we’re in such a terrible position,” Pearson argues, that even despite this problem, improving the redistricting map could alone produce “much fairer representation and make the Congress look really different.”
3) These races give Dems a chance to turn things around in swing states and “blue wall” states that Trump won. Trump smashed the so-called “blue wall” by winning in Michigan and Wisconsin. Democrats have a chance to win back both those states on the gubernatorial level, as well as other states that Barack Obama won but Hillary Clinton lost, such as Florida and Ohio.
There has been a great deal of chatter about how Democrats should retool their economic message to win back the working class and middle class whites that Trump overperformed among, but these races provide a chance to actually try to do this in the immediate future. “When you run for governor, your challenge is speaking to people about economic opportunity and being authentic,” Pearson says, adding that “rebuilding our party on the state and local level is exactly what needs to happen, and our governors races over the next two years will jump-start that conversation.”
It’s too early to judge Democratic recruiting for the 2018 cycle, which has just begun, but note that if Democrats do have success here, it could also help begin to shape the roster of rising stars in the Democratic Party in coming years.
4) Winning back states could have a big influence on policy. It’s likely that Democrats will mostly be shut out of governing in Washington for the next four years, so winning back ground on the state level may represent their best — and only — chance to have an influence over policymaking. We’ve already seen that Republicans recognized the policy importance of doing that at a time when Democrats controlled the White House — witness their blockade on the Medicaid expansion in many GOP controlled states, as well as draconian GOP fiscal policies in places like Kansas and GOP blows to voting rights and unions in places like North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Now this could become extremely pressing for Democrats. If Trump and Republicans modify Obamacare while blockgranting Medicaid to the states, increased Dem control on the state level could potentially mitigate the damage where possible. Meanwhile, progressives have had some successes on the state level on issues such as the minimum wage, and the state level may afford the only opportunity to further showcase progressive policies in the Age of Trump.
All of which is to say that liberal and Democratic voters who are despairing over the outcome in 2016 have another option. They can start focusing on the possibility of regaining ground in the elections of the next two years — which will be upon us before you know it.