The Democrats' off-year election crisis

Matt Bevin wins Kentucky governorship
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Story highlights

  • Democrats have struggled in non-presidential election cycles
  • Since Obama's election in 2008, Democrats have lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, nearly 1,000 state legislative seats and now 12 governor's offices

Washington (CNN)In the wake of Democrats' shellacking in the midterms a year ago, party brass released a seven-page autopsy in an effort to explain why they can't seem to win big races if a presidential candidate isn't on the ballot.

That document, issued by a 10-member task force in February, was a summary -- but a full version with more detailed recommendations was supposed to follow in May. It never came.
Democrats are still searching for answers.
    Tuesday, a Republican underdog -- the bombastic, self-funding businessman Matt Bevin -- snatched away a Kentucky governor's office that had been in Democratic hands for 40 of the last 44 years.
    Party honchos acknowledged that voters' disinterest in non-presidential elections is a problem they can't seem to solve. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that races for anything but the presidency just might not be sexy enough to draw the party's core voters to the polls.
    "The presidential race is the main event. It has everything: It has glamour, it has money, it has power -- it's showbiz. It's an attraction," Pelosi said Thursday. "And off years are like the lounge act. Who goes there -- right?"
    But if non-presidential elections are like seeing a play off Broadway or visiting a Las Vegas casino away from The Strip, their results have ways of handcuffing Democratic presidents, particularly in an era in which strategists in both parties acknowledge that winnable, independent voters are few and far between.
    Much of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda has been stuck since 2010, when Republicans won the House. He lost even more sway on Capitol Hill in 2014, when the GOP picked up the Senate majority. That's left him reliant on executive actions on issues like climate change and immigration that can't go as far as legislation would. And those rules and action are also subject to legal challenges and easy reversal by a future Republican president.
    Meanwhile, down-ballot losses have stymied the implementation of Obama's signature health care law in states like Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe failed to gain Democratic control of the state Senate this week and therefore won't be able to implement a Medicaid expansion.
    And losing state legislatures has meant losing influence in the process of redistricting -- which allows for districts favorable to Republican congressional and state legislative candidates.
    The Obama era has been particularly brutal to Democrats. Since his election in 2008, the party has shed 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, nearly 1,000 state legislative seats and now 12 governor's offices.
    There is reason for the party faithful to be optimistic: Democratic voters are certain to turn out at stronger rates in 2016's presidential race, and with the closest Senate races coming in usually-blue states like Illinois, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, the party could retake that chamber, too.
    Then, though, would come 2018 -- and the same old problems.
    The Democratic National Committee has focused its recent efforts on building the party's voter-data operation and increasing its work directly with state Democratic parties.
    That coordination needs to grow dramatically, said Mitch Ceasar, the Democratic chairman in heavily-populated Broward County, Florida -- who's also a DNC executive committee member and a former state party chairman. He said the focus should be electing Democratic state legislatures "because if we don't do that, we lose the reapportionment."
    "It's going to take some cataclysmic event -- getting hit over the head with a 2-by-4 -- to get them to say, 'We have to go out there and protect the bottom of the ballot so we can grow people up,'" Ceasar said.
    Ceasar suggested in an interview that the DNC launch and fund a national training program for state parties -- which would then train local parties. A particular focus: Teaching the new voters the party has attracted in recent years the importance of voting in every race -- not leaving the polling place with the first few boxes filled in an a massive "undervote" by failing to vote down-ballot. That problem reached record levels in 2008, he said.
    "It's training so you teach state and local parties how to successfully access the educational tools to make sure whoever you get there doesn't leave until it's all over," he said.
    Other Democrats pointed to messaging.
    "I think it's communicating a clear message on policy and policy differences," said Holly Shulman, a Democratic strategist and former DNC official.
    The now nearly nine-month-old DNC task force document suggested a "national narrative project" to advance the premise that electing Democrats everywhere -- not just to top national offices -- is what's necessary to promote some policy priorities.
    "No area of this review caused more debate or solicited more ideas than the belief that there is no single narrative that unites all of our work and the issues that we care about as a community of Democrats," the task force wrote.
    "It is strongly believed that the Democratic Party is loosely understood as a long list of policy statements and not as people with a common set of core values (fairness, equality, opportunity)," the report said. "This lack of cohesive narrative impedes the party's ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.

    All politics is local

    Some Democrats said Kentucky's results aren't a useful check on where the two parties stand a year away from the presidential election.
    Their argument: The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Jack Conway, shied away from taking any Democratic-sounding positions. And two other statewide candidates, including failed 2014 Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes as secretary of state and another Democrat as attorney general, actually won.
    Democrats also pointed to the success of an Ohio referendum that could lead to more evenly-drawn congressional districts and the election of three state Supreme Court judges in Pennsylvania who the party perceives as more likely to draw fair districts there, where the reapportionment process is in the hands of judges.
    "Each race has its own thing," Shulman said. "I think it really does have to do with the specifics of the race and the specifics of each cycle."
    The fact that pre-Election Day polls had shown a better outcome for Conway in Kentucky's governor's race had much to do with voter turnout in a very red state, Democratic strategists said.
    "When you're a Democrat running in a conservative state, you very often you don't end up leaning into your Democratic values or your Democratic policy positions," said prominent Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "As a result, Democratic voters tend to be less excited and less enthused about showing up."
    Garin added that while Tuesday's results were "disappointing," they didn't speak to how the Democratic Party is positioned heading into 2016.
    "These are honestly very local elections driven by local considerations -- they don't tell us very much about broad national trends," Garin said. "Certainly not broad national trends in the kinds of places that will determine who will win the presidency in 2016."