The great Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.” So it is. As both a former campaign organizer and legislative aide, I can personally attest to Speaker O’Neill’s famous assertion. The door-to-door campaigning that is the heart and soul of state assembly and legislative politics does often set statewide and often national agendas. Every tree has its roots.
Enter the Democratic Party of 2015. Admittedly battered from their trouncing in the 2014 mid-terms, yet still ‘bon vivant’ in the dimming afterglow of President Obama’s 2012 re-election triumph. As they should. The second Obama Administration has seen the once shaky progressive agenda reach soaring new heights; being branded a “liberal” is no longer the political scarlet letter it once was.
Yet, with all the national success that they’ve enjoyed in recent years, the same can’t be said for their fortunes locally. After the initial Obama-led wave in 2008, the Democrats have witnessed their ranks continue to diminish at both the state and federal levels across the country; 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. That’s not to mention the dual control of both federal legislative chambers as well.
State assemblies, like Missouri’s (pictured above) have been dominated by Republicans in recent years.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) seems perfectly content (so far) to continue this dubious strategy. As we’ve witnessed throughout this election cycle, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little or a lot to Obama’s left, options that are unlikely to aid Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfavorable House electoral map and a traditionally more conservative mid-term electorate. That said, no real formula for success seems forthcoming from the DNC to redress this emerging weakness for their down-ballot compatriots. A problem that has continued to grow since the 2010 mid-term drubbing of the Democrats by the likes of Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida.
Furthermore, four of the 11 states where Democrats control both houses of the state assembly — Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois — have a Republican governor. This leaves just seven states under complete unified Democratic control.
Republicans have unified control of 25 states, with the results usually amounting to the following:
- Restrictions on abortion rights
- The spread of anti-union “right to work” laws
- New curbs on voting rights
- Layoffs of teachers and other public sector workers
- Business friendly tax policies
Control of state legislatures shifted further to the right in 2014
All is not lost, however. The Democrats are acutely aware of the potential of nominating unusually conservative candidates to run in unusually conservative states. Missouri being a prime example, where “conservative” Democrats like Governor Nixon and Attorney General Koster have found electoral success despite President Obama’s electoral failures in the state. Success like theirs is absolutely crucial to the progressive agenda, even if they’re not among its more true believers. One only has to look toward Governor Nixon’s veto of the recently proposed “right-to-work” legislation. But in most instances, there exists a fundamental mismatch between the national and local platforms.
The ascension of Barack Obama has ushered in an atmosphere of complacency and overconfidence. The party is moving steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave — all noble causes. Yet, seem to be incompatible with a House majority or any meaningful degree of success in state politics either. In many ways, the Democrats’ control of the White House is the last firewall of the progressive movement, the loss of which, would essentially translate into one-party Republican rule throughout much of the country.
2016 Democratic presidential front-runners: Bernie Sanders (left) and Hillary Clinton (right)
Our state, Missouri, has a Democratic Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State; not to mention a Democratic U.S. Senator as well (courtesy of Todd Akin). An impressive contingent in terms of representation. Yet, a seemingly permanent Republican majority exists in both chambers in Jefferson City; with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the Missouri House of Representatives 116-44 and in the Missouri Senate 25-8. A Democratic executive battling a Republican legislature; a near perfect microcosm for the current political situation nationally.
Though this organization has, on numerous occasions, praised many elements of the current Democratic platform, we’re also willing to acknowledge that there’s no way to actually enact it without first achieving a considerably higher level of down-ballot and local electoral success than the Democrats currently enjoy. Down-ballot Republicans can only be salivating at the thought of running against a national platform to the left of the most progressive president in American history. The coming months will see a clearer indication of the identity of the two major-party presidential nominees. Be they Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or even Ben Carson, one thing is clear: Local Matters.
24th State Solutions