Democrats: It’s the states, stupid (Part 2)

By Herman Schwartz
October 29, 2013


Since the government shutdown, public opinion of the Republican Party has hit a new low. Yet the Democrats might not be able to gain from it. Despite the GOP’s fall from grace — and even if they suffer a lower vote count in the 2014 midterm elections — the Republicans might still control the House of Representatives and many state legislatures after the polls close.

Our Constitution is unique in that it gives state legislatures virtually complete control over how we elect the president and Congress. In other democracies, the national government runs elections, usually through an impartial commission. Our system, however, lets the party that controls the state legislatures manipulate election rules to help itself and harm its opponents in both the state and House races.

Realizing this, powerful Republican leaders, including former Bush White House Counselor Ed Gillespie and Senior Adviser Karl Rove decided in 2009 to concentrate on winning control of the state legislatures. Through a combination of money, luck and skill, in 2010 the Republicans captured almost a majority of the state legislatures, and then added a few more in 2012. This has given them the power not only to shape the electoral rules and control the House, but also to pass other laws that shape many aspects of our lives.

The public outrage at the Republicans for the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis, however, offers the Democrats an opportunity to regain control of some state legislatures. This will require a great deal of money and hard work — and it is the national Democratic Party that has the resources to do this. Democratic national leaders, however, seem to consider that the only elected offices worth seeking are in Washington.

Whether the national organization will be willing and able to pivot to something they have ignored for so long is problematic. But they must act, for a comparable opportunity is unlikely for a long time. Otherwise, gridlock may continue.

As I wrote for Reuters here, after the GOP’s crushing defeat in 2008, party strategists poured money and talent into the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) — formed in 2002 to centralize all GOP state efforts. Gillespie took over the chairmanship and installed a senior aide, Chris Jankowski, as president. The goal was to win enough individual state districts to control the state electoral process, and then gerrymander congressional and state districts to ensure that Republicans win the House and state legislature seats for years to come.

The GOP’s 2010 ” shellacking” of the Democrats gave the Republicans what they wanted — control of the redistricting process in more than 20 states. The timing was key, since redistricting is pegged to the new Census, taken at the start of every decade. “When you hear [Republican] members talk candidly about their biggest victory,” the National Review’s Washington Bureau Chief Robert Costa observed, “it wasn’t winning the House in 2010. It was winning the state legislatures in 2010 — because they were able to redraw their districts so they had many more conservative voters.”

The GOP gerrymandering allowed Republicans to withstand the Democrats’ strong 2012 win. There was little damage to the GOP in Congress and the states during that election cycle. Republicans won nine of the 10 states where gerrymandering had produced the greatest discrepancy between votes and seats, netting 7.2 extra seats. It may add even more in Texas because of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling, which undermined the Voting Rights Act. That decision also precipitated the passage of scores of voter suppression measures in Republican-controlled Southern states that had been subject to federal oversight under the act . The GOP state legislatures also passed hundreds of other conservative laws in 2011 and 2012, many restricting access to abortion. Additional anti-abortion restrictions have been enacted this year.

So far, the Democrats have done little to improve their position. It won’t be easy in any case.

The RSLC is tightly organized, with a national game plan run by leading party strategists and staffed with highly-experienced political operatives. It is funded generously by many large donors, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leading corporations. It raised $30 million in 2010, and spent approximately $19.4 million on direct campaign ads  for individual candidates. In 2012, it upped the ante — raising almost $40 million, and devoted $29 million to direct campaign spending.

The group has already begun working on the 2014 election cycle. In the first six months of 2013, the organization raised $7.4 million from just 10 contributors — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhARMA and Altria.

There is a Democratic counterpart to the RSLC, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). But it is no match for the RSLC — either alone or together with the two other Democratic campaign organizations, the Democratic Attorney General Association (DAGA) and the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association (DLGA).

Each group operates independently and has a relatively modest budget. The lieutenant governors group, for example, spent about $1 million combined in both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Though the attorney general candidates spent more, $8 million in 2012 and $7 million in 2010, they usually run their own campaigns — like the governors — based on their own agendas.

The DLCC chairman is Michael Gronstal, who is the Iowa Senate majority leader. The executive director since 2007 is Michael Sargeant, who has worked on statewide and congressional elections.

The organization boasts it made “net gains … in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2012” in gaining seats and legislative chambers. While this is true, in four of the last five years, the national Democratic Party won decisively. Barack Obama has been the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win at least 51 percent of the vote in two elections — and such big victories always have a tailcoat effect.

Consider that Democrats won 170 state seats in 2012, and were able to take back the Maine and Minnesota legislatures from the GOP, as well as chambers in Colorado, Oregon, New Hampshire and New York. But Obama won all these states by substantial margin — Maine by 15.1 percent and Minnesota by 7.7 percent. In Wisconsin, meanwhile, despite Obama’s 6.7 percent victory, the Republicans won full control of the state legislature.

Moreover, these Democratic wins were offset by three GOP turnovers. Arkansas, for example, had been completely controlled by Democrats even after 2010. But the GOP captured both legislative chambers in 2012 — the first time this has happened since 1874. Republicans now have a veto-proof legislature opposing a Democratic governor. The GOP also picked up a chamber in Oklahoma.

In fact, because the GOP’s gerrymandering was so effective in 2012, the tailcoat effect was far weaker than usual. Republicans won 223 more state legislature seats than Democrats, 3,093 to 2,870, and seized control 57 of 99 legislative chambers. It also increased the Republican veto-proof majorities from 13 to 16, and raised their total control of state governments including the governorship, from 22 to 24. (This includes Nebraska, which has a nominally non-partisan unicameral legislature.)

The Democrats thus wound up with a net gain of five four chambers, including only the four chambers in Maine and Minnesota, and total control of just 13 states. They can’t afford many more such victories.

Though the Democrats have increased both their fundraising and campaign spending, they are still far behind their opponents. In 2012 the DLCC raised $17 million and allocated only $11 million to direct campaign spending, compared with $29 million by the Republicans. The 2010 DLCC direct campaign spending figure was even smaller: $5.9 million, less than a third of the Republicans’ $19.4 million.

GOP fundraising has also dwarfed the Democrats’. In 2010 and 2012, the three Democratic state organizations combined raised only $15.5 million and $22 million, roughly half of the RSLC’s $30 million and $40 million. The DLCC funding comes overwhelmingly from a handful of labor unions. Almost half the group’s top 20 contributors are unions, and only two gave $1 million or above in 2012 — $ 1.7 million from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and $1 million from the Teamsters.

For its part, the RSLC says it has 100,000 donors nationally. Its top 20 contributors, however, include several multimillion-dollar givers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, consistently the top RSLC supporter, gave $4 million in 2012 and $3.9 million in 2010; tobacco companies and Blue Cross/Blue Shield each gave $1 million or more in the two presidential elections.

Perhaps to counter the Republicans, Democratic state legislators this summer created a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, American Values First (AVF). Like other 501(c )(4)s, it is limited in how much it can spend on elections. How limited, though, is still uncertain — and is part of the regulatory morass that led to the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal. By contrast, the RSLC is a 527 organization, so it can spend as much as it wants.

Michael Sargeant, of the DLCC, was also appointed AVF executive director. Almost nothing else about this organization is publicly known — neither its financial situation nor personnel other than Sargeant.

He has announced that AVF plans a 50-state effort on increasing ballot access, focused initially on mail-in elections. Given the widespread Republican efforts to suppress voting with ID laws and decreased hours for early voting, it is unclear how increasing ballot access can be enacted — other than in states totally controlled by Democrats, where ballot access is already easy.

The RSLC, meanwhile, is taking concrete steps to correct Republican weakness among minorities and women. In 2011, the group launched the Future Majority Project to identify and support Republican Latino and female candidates for state office. The group spent $5.5 million in the 2012 elections to support 125 Latino candidates and 191 women candidates.

Eighty-four women won, but only 15 Latinos. The GOP announced this summer that it will try to recruit 300 women candidates and 200 minorities, and plans to devote another $5 to $6 million total to the effort.

The angry public reaction against the Republicans for the shutdown and debt crisis could transform the electoral picture and overcome the GOP gerrymandering even at the down-ballot state level. At this time, however, the Democrats’ efforts must concentrate on regaining the U.S. House and holding the Senate, for little if anything can be accomplished in Congress unless the gridlock is broken.

The election is a year away, however, and politics is ever-changing and notoriously unpredictable. Unless the Republicans again shut down the government or threaten a government default, memories may fade or other events will intervene. After the 1995 shutdown, Republicans lost only eight congressional seats in the 1996 election in which President Bill Clinton beat Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole handily. And today’s map is far more gerrymandered.

But the Democrats must also begin to overcome GOP dominance of the state legislatures. 2020 is the crucial date. If the Democrats fail to retake a substantial number of these state chambers by then, the Republicans will be able to continue the 2011 gerrymandering in 2021. We can likely expect far more state conservative legislation against voting rights, reproductive rights, unions and more. Given the Tea Party’s influence within the GOP and its many billionaire backers, gridlock could also continue in Congress — even if the Democrats win every presidential election or the Senate for years to come.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected to reflect the fact that the GOP did not gain a chamber in the Oklahoma legislature in 2012. Both chambers were already Republican. It was also corrected in that the Democrats netted five chambers in 2012, not four as originally stated.  


ILLUSTRATION (Top) : Matt Mahurin

PHOTO (Insert): President George W. Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove (L) jokes around with White House staffer Ed Gillespie across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, August 1, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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@Out …and Hamilton and Madison were very enlightened. Here we are 200 years later dealing with the issues they anticipated — the curse of professional politicians, the abdication of rights reserved to the states, and the federal government interfering in issues that are outside their Constitutional purview.

The Beltway aristocrats figured out very early on they could purchase acquiescence by throwing money at their buddies in the state legislature. The idea that the federal government distributes “free money” is absurd in both concept and application. it’s so badly broken, I am not sure even term limits would help. (And John McCain says he has a following that supports his reelection? McCain and everyone else like him (e.g. Harry Reid) need to just go away.)

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Excellent article, but neither Oklahoma chamber flipped in 2012. The Oklahoma House flipped R in 2004, the Senate in 2008 (Michael Dubin Party Divisions in State Legislatures) or 2010 (Ballotpedia).

Posted by stevekamp | Report as abusive

Should it be “the states, stupid”? The constitution and our forefathers quite obviously intended on the states holding individual power and the federal government being weak in governing and strong in defense. But in the last one hundred years or so this has been changing. Considering how the world is moving into globalization, should we still strive for states to have more power? Spur competition between states? I don’t think so myself. I think the USCA needs to have a solid cohesion between the states and act strongly as a sovereign nation, not a weak coalition of states. But I doubt it is possible as diversity has “strengthened” our country so much that we can’t make any decisions and everything we do is just a watered down compromise. Perhaps separating and strengthening the individual states would make a state less divided and hence stronger? I don’t think they could be strong enough to compete well in the global economy.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc I do not think the potential conflict between strong states and the federal government is that big of an issue. I propose the federal government minimize many of the functions, and the massive bureaucracies, they manage today. E.g. When you have as many as 52 federal agencies managing “clean water” regulations, many often in conflict with one another, streamlining is necessary. The Dept of Agriculture is a massive bureaucracy defined when 50% of the population was involved in agriculture, versus 3% today, streamlining and downsizing is called for. The Dept of Education merely redistributes tax dollars back to the states while promoting mandates, many having little to do with education. And the Justice Department is home to thousands of attorneys who have to justify their existence, while the leadership stretches the limits (I am being gracious) of the law to drive a political agenda (e.g. Fast and Furious, AP wiretapping, and dozens of unpaid interns.)

This monstrosity of 2.0 million employees, many securing salaries and benefits grossly disproportionate to the private sector, could easily be streamlined with the tax revenues reverting back to the states where better decisions can be made.

The federal government under the Constitution can still take the lead, as allowed under the Constitution, to manage global trade and treaties, national defense, etc. But any change of this magnitude will require a sea-change in attitude on the part of Congress–perhaps moving back to part-time politicians. The country would be significantly better off.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@COIndependent, I agree 100% that the federal government need to shrink considerably. Many more than 3 agencies that the Texan governor couldn’t remember. We need a smaller, but stronger federal government. After the shrinkage though, the remaining would not be strong with significant state powers. Economics is a big one. We currently are seeing states compete for businesses and the only winners are the corporations. States offer no taxation and huge subsides to lure a company from one state to another. Paying for our own jobs. This must be stopped. We are just destroying ourselves that way. Also in other fields, such as energy. The nation needs cheap energy to compete globally. I could easily agree with you though on health care. If it were a nationally mandated but state run system, competition would be eliminated, consistency and portability maintained, but streamlining and efficiencies found. It is when states have opposing and/or competing ideas that we weaken the country as a whole.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive