Though Democrats have a lot to mourn from the 2016 election, they notched a small electoral victory last week. The race: a special election to fill a vacated State Senate seat in Delaware. Though small in stature, the election gained national exposure because it is one of the first elections to take place after the races in November 2016, and because the winner would decide the balance of the Delaware State Senate. This race has a lot to say about what Democrats have done wrong and what they can do to improve in the future.
First of all, we should start with the obvious question that should make Democrats everywhere want to pull their hair out. After former Delaware State Senator Bethany Hall-Long was elected Lt. Governor of Delaware, the balance of the Delaware State Senate was up for grabs, with both parties holding ten seats. So here’s the question: why in the world was control of the Delaware State Senate ever up for grabs in the first place? In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Delaware by twelve points. Other statewide candidates, such as those running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, won by nearly twenty. In Delaware, which is one of the most Democratic states in the Union, wouldn’t you expect that if 60% of the state’s residents are Democrats, then shouldn’t around 60% of the State Senate also be Democrats? This would mean that 13 of Delaware’s State Senate seats would be held by Democrats and 8 by Republicans. The fact that Republicans hold more seats than they should is evidence of one the Democratic party’s major weakness: they have struggled to compete at the state and local level, and they struggle to succeed even in states that should be squarely in their corner.
This isn’t just a Delaware problem. Around the United States, Democrats consistently underperform expectations in even the bluest of states. Ten deep blue states have Republican governors, including Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, and Vermont. Vermont. Like, land of Bernie Sanders and Ben and Jerry’s Vermont. Vermont, where the rivers flow with organic, non-GMO, locally sourced water, and it seems like every house is powered by solar panels. Vermont having a Republican governor should be equally as unimaginable as Mississippi electing a black, lesbian socialist to the United States Senate, yet Republicans routinely win in Vermont and other liberal nirvanas. By comparison, only four Republican states have Democratic governors, and that includes Louisiana, where the Democratic governor barely defeated his Republican opponent, who was caught up in a prostitution scandal.
The situation is even more dire when you account for seats in the State Senate and the State House of Representatives. Around the United States, Democrats have trifectas — a democratic governor and democratic control over both chambers — in just six states. By comparison, Republicans have trifectas in twenty-five states, including typically Democratic states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire. Of the twenty-five remaining states with joint control, just four are typically Republican states, and the rest are Democratic or swing states. As recently as 2009, Democrats exceeded Republicans in trifectas, with 17 Democratic trifectas compared to just 10 for the GOP.
This all goes to show that Democrats don’t compete in Republican states, struggle to compete in Swing states, and don’t even manage to defend solid blue states. Meanwhile, Republicans have their states locked down tight, they dominate in swing states, and they are surprisingly effective in Democratic states. Why is this the case? Why have Democrats grown so bad at winning state and local elections? There are a few explanations.
One is just timing and the cyclical nature of elections. Because the President is by far the most visible political figure in the United States, the President’s party almost always struggles in other races up and down the ballot. Since a Democrat has been president for the past eight years, Democrats have seen eight years of decline.
Democrats also face structural disadvantages. For instance, Republicans receive much more financial support from industries like oil and gas and the financial sector, giving them a lot more leeway to build their party in non-republican states.But Republicans have also intentionally invested in party building, working hard to expand into new areas and build up their state and local infrastructure.
While Democrats spent years focusing on building up their strength in federal elections, Republicans pulled the rug out from underneath them further down the ballot. Republicans better understood that having state and local control builds up their bench of future candidates for federal office. They also understood that controlling state governments is essential for redistricting after the census, helping them establish dominance by pushing electoral districts out of reach for Democrats. And, in the age of federal gridlock, they also better understood that most policy change occurs at the state and local level, so the best place to push their agenda was in that arena. But Democrat Stephanie Hanson’s victory in Delaware shows that the Democratic Party might finally be waking up to the fact that they need to turn their attention further down the ballot and support the party’s efforts at every stage of government.
In this election, the Democratic Party contributed unprecedented resources, talent, and attention for a race of this size. Grassroots progressives from around the United States also lent their support, donating over $1 million Hanson’s campaign and hosting phone banks around the country to call Delaware voters on her behalf. Democrats might be in bad shape nationally, with a Republican president until 2020 at least, a gerrymandered House of Representatives, and a god-awful Senate map in 2018. But if Democrats continue to build the party at the grassroots level, win back state and local offices that are rightfully theirs, and get organized in traditionally Republican areas, they might just be able to pull the rug back from under the Republicans over the next few years.