Democrats In Disarray? A Roundup of Responses to Matt Yglesias

Earlier this week, Vox posted an article by Matthew Yglesias suggesting that the Democratic Party is in great peril due to the lack of attention paid to state and local races:

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won’t lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.

Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.

Insofar as this piece has been widely read and discussed — Yglesias has succeeded as an author. It seems like everyone from Rush Limbaugh to public radio picked up on it.

So naturally, I’d like to weigh in with a few thoughts:

1.) This issue comes up at the same time that both the national Republican and Democratic Party leaderships are under fire. The GOP, of course, is running Congress like a poorly-managed three-ring circus and their presidential nomination contest so far, has been a dumpster fire. And on the other side, the first debate revealed a major feud between DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Tulsi Gabbard over the former’s heavy-handed management of the party (ostensibly on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions).

2.) Given the inanity of national politics these days, it is only natural to take a look “outside that box” to say something fresh and interesting. As a professional contrarian, it makes complete sense for Yglesias to look to state and local races.

3.) It is hardly news that the Democrats have suffered several blow-outs in a row in state legislative races. Cokie Roberts made the same point months ago.

4.) Democrats are not oblivious to the issue. As Ed Kilgore notes (h/t to Ryan Cooper):

After reading Matt Yglesias’ cri de coeur against “complacent” Democrats who don’t seem to be aware the Donkey Party is a presidential loss away from a total conservative makeover of the country, my basic reaction is that Matt needs to get out more. The whole premise of his Vox piece is that Democrats either don’t know or don’t care that they are at a historic disadvantage at the state government level and have little chance of—or a “plan” for—regaining control of the U.S. House, either. The Democrats I talk to seem pretty aware of the situation, if perhaps too sanguine about their long-term prospects (thanks to faith in demographics or doubt that the craziness rampant in the GOP will enable that party to pull of a trifecta).

Hillary Clinton herself went on MSNBC yesterday to stress the importance of down-ballot races.

5.) Yglesias is doing some cherry-picking here. Yes, 70 percent of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. But as Ed Kilgore notes, “controlling a majority of the states can be accomplished with far less than a national majority thanks to the number of small (and often conservative) states.”

Note that the 70-percent-of-legislatures translates to only 55.6 percent of seats across the country.

Moreover, even the share-of-seats measurement is an inflated measurement of Republican electoral success. Ideally we would be looking at share-of-the-vote, since that reflects the actual support among the electorate. Unfortunately, that is a metric I can’t find, possibly because not all state legislative seats nationally are up in a single election. But we can reasonably assume that the Republicans won less than 56 percent of actual votes based on a few factors:

  • We do know that (federal) House Republicans got only 52 percent of the vote in the last election, and this translated into the largest majority for them since Hubert Hoover was president (56.7 percent of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives). We can probably assume that most of the partisans who voted for the GOP in the national legislature voted for the GOP in state races.
  • Some of the states with the largest number of legislators tilt GOP, despite relatively small populations. For example: Massachusetts has 160 members of the state legislature (123 D, 35 R) but the D’s advantage in seats in Massachusetts is nearly wiped out by New Hampshire, which has 400 seats (160 D, 238 R, 2 I), even though Massachusetts has five times as many people as New Hampshire does.

6.) Not all state legislative majorities are equal. Some states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia, are going to be prize plums because they are swing states, and send a significant number of representatives to Congress. The party that can win control of the state legislatures there (and heretofore, that has been the GOP in all four of these states), is in a position to make a serious impact on federal races, particularly vis-a-vis gerrymandering.

However, the flip-side to that is that there are some state legislatures which are simply irrelevant to national politics because there is only a single House seat which cannot possibly be gerrymandered. Control of the state government may matter to residents of these states, of course, but that is not the main concern of Yglesias’s article. Any effort spent by a national party organization on down-ballot races in these states is simply a waste of money:

  • Alaska
  • Delaware
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Vermont
  • Wyoming

Note that five of these seven states are GOP strongholds at the national level (though all of these states have elected both Republicans and Democrats in recent memory).

7.) Moreover, in states that do matter, the state legislative majority is often a fait accompli due to state and local gerrymandering. Perhaps the most cogent response to Yglesias comes from Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress, who notes:

Reading Yglesias’s piece, however, one comes away with the impression that there are only two branches of the federal government — the president and Congress. Granted, these are the only two elected branches, but the winner of 2016’s presidential election is likely to play an unusually large role in shaping the membership of the Supreme Court. And the Democratic Party’s best road to relevance in highly gerrymandered states begins with changing the makeup of the nation’s highest Court.

And of course, control of the judiciary depends primarily on control of the White House and secondarily on control of the U.S. Senate. Which means that taking the focus off of the presidential race is the exact opposite of what needs to be done.

8.) Ed Kilgore also emphasizes the importance of presidential GOTV in down-ballot races:

… a focused GOTV effort in a presidential year is going to produce Democratic downballot gains next year, almost infallibly, especially but not exclusively in battleground states. Yes, it is unfortunate for Democrats (but absolutely beyond anyone’s control) that relatively few governorships are up for grab in 2016. But if Matt really is interested in a “plan” for recovery instead of just a healthy sense of panic, then the actual 2016 battlegrounds are a good place to start.

Ryan Cooper also makes a similar point, asserting that base mobilization during presidential years is part of a big part of educating voters and pushing them to participate in mid-term years (not just presidential elections):

The Democrats’ strategy is thus far a halfhearted, pale shadow of the fervent ideological mobilization that the Republican base has been deploying for generations, but it basically makes sense. The end game is a politically activated base that fully understands that merely voting in presidential elections is totally inadequate to securing substantive liberal goals. It might not work, but it’s got a better shot than being the party of triangulating sellouts.

9.) It’s actually quite normal for the political party that controls the White House to stumble in mid-term elections, and the 2014 wipe-out was in large part cyclical (being the first mid-term after a decennial redistricting). Note that the same dynamic existed in 1982, 1994 and 2002. As PolitiFact notes, the calendar has simply dealt Democrats a bad hand in recent elections. Furthermore, Kilgore notes that the next decennial census cycle should be kinder to Democrats. While that is not (in itself) a “plan” as Yglesias demands, it also puts his Cassandra-ism into context.

10.) Given that reality, this interview by Greg Sargent with the director of the DGA ought to dispel notions that there is not a “plan.”

11.) Ryan Cooper notes that Yglesias seems to have an ideological agenda at play:

So why have Democrats been struggling at the state and local level? Yglesias has several explanations: structural over-representation of rural voters, who tilt conservative; the fact that the bulk of the monied class is conservative; gerrymandering; and so forth. All good reasons. However, he also implicitly embraces one of the hoariest Washington clichés: It’s because Democrats are too left-wing — they’ve abandoned the center! Perhaps sensing that he’s sounding disturbingly like America’s Worst Pundit, he tiptoes up to this rather than stating it outright, but the conclusion is clear enough:

[T]he party is marching steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave — even though existing issue positions seem incompatible with a House majority or any meaningful degree of success in state politics. [Vox]

One problem with this argument is that conservative Democrats have already lost in droves. During the huge Republicans wave in 2010, it was overwhelmingly conservative Blue Dogs and New Democrats who got thrown out. The party leadership has been desperately trying to preserve its last few Blue Dog preserves in battleground states, but they lost a bunch more in 2014 too.

This would not of course be the first time that someone has asserted that Vox-style contrarianism is simply a pose for shallow, corporate centrism. Moreover, the response from the right to this piece generally seems to be sympathetic; witness NRO quoting approvingly Yglesias’s “important point” about the Democrats “marching steadily to the left”; see Hot Air do the same.

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