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Democrats Struggle to Be National Party

Democrats Struggle to Be National Party


Last November, President Obama won a narrow reelection and the Democrats in the Senate added two seats to their caucus. A few high-profile Republicans lost their races. The outcome has prompted the usual round of hand-wringing from the media, pundits and national GOP Leaders about the future of the party. A deeper look at the election results, however, paints a more complicated picture. Democrats may want to conduct their own hand-wringing about the future of their party. 

Although it lost the Presidency, the Republicans picked up a large number of victories in November. They gained a Governorship and solidified their gains from 2010 in the House and in the states. The GOP now has 30 Governors, a record in modern political history. They control all levers of state government in 25 states. One would have to go back to the 1920s to find the GOP so ascendant in the states. The Democrats have complete control in just 12 states, an historic low. (The rest of the states have split control.) 

GOP strength in the states isn’t confined just to the South or the Plains. They control the Governor and Legislature in industrial heartland states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, as well. While Governor’s races in these states will always be competitive, redistricting should ensure that the GOP will dominate the legislatures in these states for the next decade. 

This isn’t just a numbers game. The polarization in the states gives each party an opportunity to enact large parts of their respective agendas. Republicans in several states are embracing this chance. Several states are looking at comprehensive overhauls of their tax codes. Republicans are looking at reforms throughout state government, from the budget, education and business regulation. 

Democrats, meanwhile, made strong gains in the states where they hold control. The party won a supermajority in the California and Illinois legislatures, for example. Progressives in these states will feel emboldened to pursue their agenda of higher taxes on the wealthy and business, and increased social spending. In many places, they will pursue stricter gun control and new environmental regulations. 

The public is about to benefit from a real-time experiment in whose policies are better suited to encourage economic growth. The likely Democrat lurch to the left in several states could tarnish the party’s brand in large parts of the country. Successful Republican governance in the states, by contrast, could repair some of the damage done to the GOP’s brand in national politics. 

The national GOP does face challenges. National party leaders are engaged in an existential crisis over the right amount of “conservative” or “moderate” positions. They seem largely disengaged from the party’s base supporters and activists. 

That said, Democrats are on a path to disengage them from large segments of the public. Combining this with the national Dem push to raise taxes and enact gun control, among other issues, will make it difficult for Democrats to remain competitive in large parts of the country. This will create an enormous opportunity for the national GOP to fix its brand. 

It shouldn’t look to machinations on Capitol Hill for salvation. It should look to the states.  

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