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The Democrats’ Biggest Disaster

Forget Washington—the party is weaker at the state level than it’s been in nearly a century.

Andrea Bruce/Noor

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton has left Democrats with little power to shape the national agenda in Washington. With Republicans now in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, much of the progress under Barack Obama—on health care, immigration, financial reform, and more—stands to be systematically undone. Republicans “just earned a mandate,” House Speaker Paul Ryan declared. “We are going to hit the ground running.”

Look past the GOP takeover of Washington, however, and the outlook for Democrats is even more alarming. In November, the party lost control of state legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kentucky. The state senate in Connecticut, which had been firmly blue, is now evenly split. Republicans ousted Democratic governors in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont. All told, Democrats surrendered about 30 seats in state legislatures. They now hold majorities in just 31 of the country’s 98 legislative bodies, and only 15 of the nation’s governors are Democrats.

The losses in November are part of a sharp and unprecedented decline for the party at the state level. Since Obama took office eight years ago, Democrats have lost over 800 seats in state legislatures. For the first time in history, they do not control a single legislative chamber in the South. Overall, the party is now at its weakest point at the state level since 1920.

“I don’t know how it gets any worse for the Democrats,” says Lucy Flores, a party activist who was one of the first Hispanic women elected to the Nevada state legislature. “There is no national strategy—we don’t invest in sustained engagement with voters outside of the presidential election. I don’t have a lot of faith in the current leadership.”

State legislatures and governors play a pivotal role in shaping national politics. First, they pass laws on a variety of crucial issues, from the minimum wage and carbon emissions to Medicaid expansion and police accountability. Second, they serve as a training ground for the party’s future leaders, grooming candidates for Congress and the White House. And third, they hold the power to draw electoral maps that all but dictate the political makeup of Congress.

The GOP takeover of state governments was no accident. In 2010, Republicans poured $30 million into state races—three times more than Democrats—
as part of a deliberate strategy to control the once-in-a-decade process of congressional redistricting. As a result, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats and gained control of twelve state legislatures. In 2014, the GOP spent another $38 million on state races and picked up ten more legislatures.

“The scale of Republican success in recent years outside the presidency has altered the balance between the two parties,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg warned after the 2014 debacle. “It may even leave the GOP a stronger national party than the Democrats over the next decade.”

Rosenberg was right: The GOP’s state-level victories played a key role in defeating Hillary Clinton. Because Trump outsourced much of his campaign to the Republican Party, his get-out-the-vote effort was largely managed by state officials who mobilized their political networks to help swing crucial battleground states to Trump. In North Carolina—where Republicans hold a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature—Trump won by a four-point margin, even capturing some of the counties that Obama won in 2012.

“Trump tapped into those preexisting networks,” says Garrett Ventry, a Republican strategist in North Carolina. “Democrats traditionally do better with digital ad campaigns—I’m not afraid to admit that. But people here are very engaged in state politics. What we have is a more organic kind of volunteership, because voters believe that state government affects their lives more than the U.S. Congress.”

Republicans have been deliberately building their advantage at the state level since 1994, when they took control of 15 state legislatures. Groups like the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network began using state legislatures as laboratories for conservative ideas, funneling policy proposals from Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to state lawmakers. With their first majority in Congress in 40 years, Republicans in Washington could also dictate public policy in a host of states: For the first time in history, as conservative Democrats defected to the GOP, more than half of Southern legislatures tilted red.

“As recently as the early 1990s, the South was very competitive between parties, if not favoring Democrats,” says Boris Shor, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “But since the landslide of ’94, Republican voting in state legislatures has become a function of what is happening in Congress and the presidency.”

Democrats are slowly starting to tackle their problems at the state level. Obama himself has announced that he will focus his post-presidency on a new effort, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, to battle the GOP’s advantage in state legislatures, with an eye on the 2020 elections and the next round of redistricting. The initiative will focus on raising money for candidates, launching ballot initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions, and challenging gerrymandered electoral districts, which have made it harder for Democrats to win state elections.

But it will take years of concentrated effort to reverse the GOP’s decades-long mission to dominate the states. And even without rigged electoral maps, demographic changes continue to give Republicans an edge: Because so many Democrats congregate in urban areas, their growing numbers translate into fewer electoral districts. As Trump’s victory demonstrated, Democrats can continue to win the popular vote in presidential elections but still lose the Electoral College.

Solving this problem is the enduring challenge for Democrats, and it will determine who controls politics for at least another generation. “We have to turn the Obama coalition into the Democratic coalition,” says Rosenberg, who sounded the alarm over the shift in 2014. “Reaching millennials and Hispanics requires a completely different way of running a campaign than reaching old, white people who still watch the local news at night. We’ve been very fast to innovate at the top of the ticket, but not to adjust to these changes underneath. There are parts of the party that have been slow to catch on.”