President Obama’s speech at a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser in Washington on Thursday night contained a key pearl of political wisdom for his party:
“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,” Obama said. “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 with 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 the GOP 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 those in critical swing states such as 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.
Before the 2010 election, Democrats held full control in 27 state legislatures while Republicans controlled 14, and eight had split control. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.) After the 2010 election, Republicans enjoyed full control in 25 state legislatures, compared with 16 for Democrats. Eight remained split. State legislatures that moved to full Republican control in 2010 included those in large and electorally critical states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and North Carolina.
Tim Storey, who focuses on state legislative races for the National Conference of State Legislatures wrote in the aftermath of the 2010 midterms that “Republicans have added over 675 seats to their ranks in this election, dramatically surpassing 1994 gains. . . . 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.”
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. 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 governorships in Pennsylvania and Florida in deep trouble. Democrats also see opportunities to win back the governor’s mansions in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, although all three are uphill fights. Forty-six states will hold state legislative elections for 91 chambers, with traditional swing states such as Iowa, Colorado and Nevada likely to hold pitched battles for control this November.
The massive number of contests coupled with the long-lasting importance of winning them — as demonstrated by GOP gains in 2010 — make the November election important for more than just who controls the U.S. House and Senate.
Still, most Democratic strategists — including the current occupant of the White House — 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 that’s a major problem for the party.