Talk of Democrats making a comeback is mostly focused on 2018 Congressional midterms and the 2020 presidential election. But there are a series of major state legislative races just around the corner in 2017, many observers and some Democratic strategists point out, that the party is missing.
This week, three states are holding special elections where the Senate chamber is up for grabs: Connecticut, Delaware and Washington. Democrats find themselves on the cusp of losing slim control of the state Senate in each, handing early scoreboard victories to Republicans despite a non-stop tsunami of remarkable scandals, gaffes, and missteps from the barely month old Trump administration.
Still some months away, but in play on the state electoral map, are major gubernatorial and state legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia. Those won’t be until November, but observers are starting to doubt Democrats will manage to replace the outgoing Chris Christie (R-N.J.) with one of their own or keep the Virginia governor’s mansion in their hands after the departure of Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.). Democrats also have a chance to make significant gains in upcoming House of Delegate elections, particularly considering the Commonwealth’s close political proximity to Washington, D.C. But, there are no signs of aggressive voter mobilization efforts from Democrats.
Interestingly, four of the five states in play for 2017 are places where Black residents are nearly 15 percent or more of the population. In Delaware, Blacks are 24 percent of the state’s population. In Connecticut, they are 13 percent. In states like New Jersey and Virginia, Black residents account for 16 and 21 percent (respectively) of the overall population.
“It’s less sexy, but this really needs to be a part of the conversation,” said Stefan Hankin, a longtime Democratic strategist and now president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a D.C.-based polling analytics firm. “It’s one thing to march in the streets and delete Uber. But, if we’re not affecting electoral outcomes, this is all for naught. Sometimes it’s tough to get excited over a state that’s just not there on the radar. Republicans understand it, though – from school board to dog catcher . . . They’re busy building their bench.”
Hankin explains that Republicans discovered, years ago, the benefit of shaping policy on the local and state level. It’s something Democrats have not learned to leverage in their failure to mobilize coalitions during state and local elections or during dreaded “off cycles” when presidential elections aren’t taking place.
At the moment, Democrats seem comfortable on paper in New Jersey. A January Quinnipiac University Poll showed leading Democratic contender and former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy ahead of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno by 16 points.
But, 22 percent of voters in that poll are undecided and Murphy has less name recognition among voters than Guadagno. In addition, there are early signs of an intense Democratic primary brawl that could leave Democrats exposed and weakened, thereby giving Republicans a moment to rally around Guadagno. It feels a lot like 2016 for Democrats.
“Murphy gets the Democratic vote and Guadagno has the Republican vote,” observes Quinnipiac’s Mickey Carroll. “It looks like Goldman Sachs versus the lieutenant governor who spent four years in Christie’s shadow. Will other challengers perk up? Will it be strictly a party-line election?”
The demographics in these states are important, especially when considering the crucial role Black voters play in creating the most loyal brand of the Democratic Party’s base. There is an expectation that Black voter mobilization is the key to either maintaining Democratic hold on local, state, and federal seats or helping the party make gains.
And, should Republicans further cement their dominance of state legislatures nationwide, GOP lawmakers could renew a drive towards voter suppression laws in states with large multicultural populations.
The problem for Democrats is that elections on the state and local level almost always produce very low turnout among voters. Only 20 percent of voters nationwide know their state legislator. And Democrats generally have trouble raising local and state election awareness among their voter coalitions, which includes Black, Brown, and young voters.
The other problem: Democrats may be too overconfident in the assumption that voters are angry enough with Trump to notice off-cycle state elections and to vote Democrat across the board.
In addition, Democrats are currently consumed by a long battle for party chair that has opened up a bruising fight between progressives and pragmatists. “I think once the national DNC leadership race is done, they’ll be able to refocus,” says Emory University’s Andra Gillespie.
For Gillespie, there’s a bigger question of whether or not Democrats can make inroads in a hostile political environment. “Whites are becoming a shrinking portion of the American electorate,” adds Gillespie, emphasizing state elections and Congressional midterms, noting that could be used to Democrats’ advantage. “They have to look into not only winning some White voters back but also finding ones on the progressive scale you can turnout while maximizing your multicultural coalition.”