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Defying the Odds

Defying the Odds
New book about the 2016 election.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The United States of Republican Ambition

In his influential 1991 book, The United States of Ambition, Alan Ehrenhalt argued that Democrats had a fundamental advantage. Smart, ambitious Democrats tend to go into politics, he suggested, while smart, ambitious Republicans go into business. Therefore they have better candidates. As a prime example, he cited Democratic gains in Wisconsin, quoting a Democratic state senator: "The Republicans hate government. Why be here if you hate government? So they let us run it for them."

Lower offices are the farm clubs for higher offices.  If your side is short on state legislators, you will also be short on good candidates for the House.  And if you do not elect a lot of House members, you will be short on good candidates for the U.S. Senate.

Things seemed to change with the election of a GOP Congress in 1994.  But during the decade of GOP dominance that followed, Democrats retained considerable strength in state legislatures. And as we point out in After Hope and Change, GOP setbacks in 2006 and 2008 appeared to be putting American politics back on the path that Ehrenhalt described.

But now, after the 2010 and 2014 drubbings, it is the Democrats who have the underpopulated farm club.  

Alexander Burns writes at Politico:
At the start of the 2014 campaign, Democrats envisioned an election that would produce new national stars for the party in at least a few tough states – Georgia Sen. Michelle Nunn or Kentucky Sen. Alison Lundergan Grimes, for instance, or maybe even Texas Gov. Wendy Davis. Even if the party fell short in those “reach” states, Democrats hoped to produce new heavyweight blue-state Democrats – Maryland Gov. Anthony Brown, the country’s only black state executive; or Maine Gov. Mike Michaud, who would have been the first openly gay candidate elected governor.

Any of them could have landed on a vice presidential short list in 2016.
Instead, all of them lost.
Joining them were numerous down-ballot Democrats widely viewed as future contenders for high office: attorney general candidates in Nevada and Arizona who looked like future governors; aspiring state treasurers in Ohio and Colorado who could have gone on to bigger things; prized secretary of state candidates in Iowa and Kansas as well as countless congressional hopefuls around the country.
Dan Balz writes at The Washington Post:
When President Obama was elected in 2008, his victory signaled a generational change and the prospect of renewal for the Democratic Party. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Over the past six years, the party has been hollowed out.
The past two midterm elections have been cruel to Democrats, costing them control of the House and now the Senate, and producing a cumulative wipeout in the states. The 2010 and 2014 elections saw the defeat of younger politicians — some in office, others seeking it — who might have become national leaders.
 As the post-Obama era nears, the Democrats’ best-known leaders in Washington are almost entirely from an older generation, from the vice presidency to most of the major leadership offices in the House and Senate. The generation-in-waiting will have to wait longer.
...
The more serious problem for Democrats is the drubbing they’ve taken in the states, the breeding ground for future national talent and for policy experimentation. Republicans have unified control — the governorship and the legislature — in 23 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats control just seven. Democrats hold 18 governorships, but only a handful are in the most populous states.
At Vox, Libby Nelson writes:
The next redistricting isn't until after the 2020 Census. But the overwhelming Republican control of state legislatures already matters for elections down the line in at least one key way: by weakening the Democrats' legislative bench.
Statehouses are fertile ground for candidates for higher office from both parties. Nearly half of all members of Congress started out in statehouses. Forty-three Senators were once state legislators, including 27 Democrats. So were 217 voting House members, the majority of them Republicans. And, of course, there's a former Democratic state senator from Illinois with a pretty important elected office right now.
There are still plenty of Democratic state legislators out there. But the fewer statehouses there are under Democratic control, the fewer opportunities those legislators have to make policy, become visible, and rise through the ranks. That's a loss with ramifications that could last a generation.