80 percent of winning is just showing up
by Tom Sullivan
People ask me, Bernie or Hillary? I tell them I don't care. My fight is not in Washington, D.C. It is here. I care that someone from the left side of the aisle wins the presidency in November 2016. I need those next 2-3 Supreme Court picks. I'm just not that particular which left-leaning president gets to pick them. And good luck getting them approved by a Republican-controlled Senate. (More on that later.)
The old saying goes: Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line. You might have trouble convincing John Boehner of the latter, but the former still seems operative. Bernie-mania is this year's Obama-mania. It is as if the left's disappointments with the Obama administration never happened. They've found a brand new lover and it will be totally different this time. For a movement confident of its intellectual heft, we are really slow learners.
Matthew Yglesias points out the obvious:
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.
In that much, Yglesias is right. The left (and the DNC) needs to lose its quadrennial infatuation with the race at the top of the ticket if it wants to regain control of the Congress and the state legislatures (and redistricting) by the 2020 census. "See you in four years," one voter cheerfully told one of our electioneers outside the county Board of Elections in 2008. We elected the first black president and passed the ACA. Democrats went back to their couches and let Obama handle (or not handle) the rest. Millions of Democrats stayed home in 2010, as they do habitually in off-year elections, and ceded redistricting control to Republican legislatures. The GOP had REDMAP, and Democrats helped them make it successful. In 2014, the country got redder and the gerrymandering got worse. Here is what election night looked like across the South in 2014:
President Hillary Clinton won't fix that. President Bernie Sanders won't either. You have to fix that.
If 80 percent of life is just showing up, Howard Dean had it right with his 50 state plan. Mark Warner got close when he told Yearly Kos in 2006, "[W]e cannot just go after 16 states and then try to hit a triple bank-shot to get Ohio or Florida." Of course, Warner meant Democrats should field a presidential candidate that could compete in 50 states. What Democrats need to do instead is strengthen state parties and compete down-ballot in 50 states. Dean understands this. If you don't show up to play, you forfeit. While we bicker about Hillary vs. Bernie, the GOP shows up to play in states where the DNC doesn't dedicate resources the way Dean wanted to.
Aside from Supreme Court picks, the real fight is not in Washington, D.C. but in the states. Sending an Obama or (current crush) Sanders to the White House without substantial gains in the House, Senate, and in state legislatures is a recipe for the same kind of congressional gridlock we have already, and for continued erosion of voting and personal rights, and degradation of infrastructure and public education in the states. Those red states in the middle of the country the DNC ignores may not have many people or electoral votes, but they each get two U.S. Senators and state legislatures. The left cannot afford to ignore that.
But look again at the graphic above. North Carolina was the only state in the country with a net pickup of state legislature seats last year. Instead of wringing hands over all that red, maybe the DNC, DSCC and DCCC should be asking themselves what those guys did right. In nonpartisan judicial elections in 2014, North Carolina Democrats also took three out of three contested Supreme Court races and won two out of three contested Appeals Court races. And those, in a sweep election where the GOP should have won it all. Republicans in the North Carolina legislature responded in 2015 by changing the way North Carolina elects judges.
Late in the afternoon on Election Day 2014, an election protection attorney from Massachusetts told me with some respect, "I have never seen an operation like this." That was before the polls closed and we picked up two of those three legislative seats, one from an ALEC board member. Those were in state house districts Republicans drew to be safe GOP seats.
Yglesias writes, "But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot." Nothing? Maybe they are just not looking. Maybe they are not looking in the right place.
People ask me, Bernie or Hillary? I tell them I don't care. As long as the Democratic nominee sends me lawyers, guns and money.