Polman: Dems are worse off beyond the beltway

Dick Polman
Dick Polman

We're all so fixated on what's happening right now in Washington — where Team Trump, shocked by its own victory, is scrambling to form a government with predictable incompetence — that it's easy to ignore what's happening in the states beyond the Beltway.

That's where the Democrats are getting their butts kicked in ways not seen since the 1920s.

When the dust settles, they'll control a mere 30 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers. Their incessant losses at the grassroots level have put the Republicans fully in charge of both legislative chambers in 32 states. That's a record high for the GOP.

Most state legislatures — at last check, 36 — draw the congressional boundaries for 336 of the 435 House districts. If Republicans can sustain their state dominance in the 2018 midterms (bet on it), they'll keep drawing those boundaries in ways that maximize their voters and minimize the clout of Democratic voters — thus perpetuating their majorities in the House of Representatives. And if Republicans in the years ahead can raise their state legislative dominance from 32 to 38 states, while retaining their congressional power, they'll be able to ratify their dream amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

This is one of the most underreported stories of our era: Barack Obama's two wins at the top of the Democratic ticket have masked the party's down-ballot disasters. In fact, Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats in the hinterlands ever since the 2010 midterms. Since Obama was sworn in, Democrats have lost roughly 900 state legislative seats and control of more than half the state chambers they ran at the dawn of 2009.

One year ago, a prominent Democratic activist said, "There's a growing realization that we've got to get more serious at the state level." Gee, ya think? The party apparently had "a growing realization," years after it should have been obvious that Obama's personal successes weren't translating to the grassroots. And despite Obama's current polling popularity, and despite his recent unprecedented endorsement of 150 state legislative candidates, Democrats got nowhere last week. They targeted the Florida Senate for takeover — didn't get it. They targeted the Michigan House and the North Carolina House — didn't get them. They targeted the Pennsylvania House — didn't get it.

A party can't build a solid bench if its legs are weak. Hillary Clinton acknowledged this in a 2015 interview: "You see the problems, when we don't have a pipeline from county commissions and school boards and state legislatures all the way up to governors. And it has really hurt us ... we have just been decimated."

So what's the problem? Why have Democrats coughed up so many states — where anti-abortion laws and voter ID laws and so many other pet conservative causes have flourished during the last six years?

Clinton, in that interview, offered one reason: "Democrats are really personality-driven." In other words, they're focused on the presidential nominee, they're top-down instead of bottom-up. A related reason is that many of the party's core constituents (minorities, young people, diehard liberals) habitually skip the midterm elections where down-ballot candidates take prominence; by contrast, the GOP's diehards turn out for the midterms, and the party's D.C. headquarters has long prioritized state legislative elections, routinely outspending their Democratic counterparts by roughly 2 to 1.

And since many (or most) voters don't know much about their state legislators, party ID is arguably the most determinative factor. That's where Republicans have built a big advantage; at the local level, their party brand is better. Fairly or not, they're viewed as the party of "low taxes" and "pro-business." Working-class whites view the GOP as the party of the little guy, even though Republicans haven't done jack for the little guy and job-exodus due to factory shutdowns were endemic under Ronald Reagan.

But nobody ever said that politics is fair. Democrats have long paid insufficient attention to their grassroots races, failing time and again to find the "language that real voters speak in." So says Democratic activist Jessica Post, who had the thankless task of helming the party's 2016 plan to win back state legislatures.

In her words, "We have a lot of learning to do about how to go back to our roots ... I think Democrats are in for a long period of introspection."

Can't argue with that.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.