Dems’ 2016 autopsy: The party will die without state-wide gains

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Estimates put attendance at last month’s women’s marches at more than 3 million. After President Trump’s immigration order, nearly $20 million was donated to the ACLU in just one weekend. The capacity for enormous change within the political left has never been more evident. And yet, the question everyone seems to be asking is, “what’s next?”

Much has been written about the Democrats’ leadership vacuum; coupled with the open election for the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, there is little wonder why the opposition to the Trump administration has felt piecemeal at best. A new DNC leader may offer partial relief, but it won’t help the underlying cause: The exit of the Clintons and Obamas has given the Democratic Party an identity crisis.

{mosads}This uncertainty has created opportunities for new leaders and new organizations to rise up and take the mantle, but unfortunately, most of these responses have fallen victim to the same foibles that got the Democrats into this mess: they are focused on federal elections.


For example, Swing Left is a brand-new group that helps you find your closest “swing” district so that you can volunteer, but so far it only lists elections for the United States House of Representatives.

Another is Political Revolution, the grassroots group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign ostensibly to elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot — their first and only endorsement so far has been for a special election in Los Angeles to fill a vacant congressional seat.

Or, there is Brand New Congress, another group of Sanders alums working exclusively to replace the existing chamber with more progressive members.

All of these groups are new, and they are all focused, for now, on federal races.

In our last article, “Democrats’ Local Party Problem,” we highlighted a breakdown in the Democratic Party’s strategy: a failure to focus on states and localities. A focus on the down-ballot races is what drives turnout in the states; this has the added benefit of helping national candidates.

One local leader we interviewed noted: “I am kind of frustrated because what they did was they came in and it was all about [the national races]. So we lost some of the lower level elected officials.”

Another lamented, “I disagree fundamentally with the idea that you just focus on a few races. I think I was able to bring more votes to the candidates up the ballot because I was out there talking to the voters [about local issues]. … It’s how you win in the long run.”

Similarly, another commented, “The year that we really got shellacked, the rural Democrats [in the state] had a high percentage of turnout. … I am just saying where there is effort it can happen. In [one county] Democrats turned out in record numbers despite having no help from [the national party].

“That demonstrates the importance of recruiting strong candidates all the way down the ballot.”

New leaders repeating the same strategies that resulted in the lowest representation by Democrats since 1920 are destined to get the same results. Even if these groups pick up a handful of congressional seats in 2018 or 2020, Republicans can simply erase them in 2022’s redistricting processes, unless Democrats can also regain control of key state legislatures. 

Just last month, ProPublica reported on an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting with conservative state legislators and advocacy groups, where they salivated over the “bright future for its agenda now that Republicans … control 68 of the nation’s 99 state legislative bodies, as well as 33 governor’s mansions.” This is the group responsible for the copy-pasted legislation appearing in multiple states on issues like voter ID, right to work, and targeted restrictions on abortion providers.

Their upcoming agenda will be more of the same — with the addition of dismantling public education and environmental regulations. And as they point out, there is little the political left can do about it.

It bears noting that focusing on state legislatures was the strategy of the Republican Party after their devastating defeat in 2008. It was called Project REDMAP.

The RNC strategically spent $30 million on targeted state legislative races in about a dozen states in 2010, allowing Republicans to take control of 21 legislative chambers in advance of redistricting.

The REDMAP post-2012 report — its famed “autopsy” — claims that “[i]n the 70 congressional districts that were labeled by National Public Radio as ‘competitive” in 2010, Republicans controlled the redrawing of at least 47 of those districts.” These maps gave Republicans a firewall to maintain a 33-seat majority in Congress after the 2012 presidential election, despite more than 1 million more votes cast for Democratic candidates.

For reference, $30 million is one-sixth of the amount raised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2016 cycle.

The Democratic Party needs the help of angry grassroots activists more than ever in 2018, but they will not be effective if they focus on federal races and the Trump administration while ignoring local elections. If Democrats don’t set themselves up by gaining back control of state legislatures, the painful maps of 2010 may worsen. 


Al Benninghoff is a political strategist, election reform advocate, and former Democratic Party operative.

Heather James is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers University. She teaches political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has completed over 100 interviews as part of the study of state legislative campaigns mentioned in this article. For more information on research methodology for the upcoming study, contact Heather James at

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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