Washington (CNN)CNN's Dana Bash laid out the systematic years-long humbling of Democrats at Wednesday's forum for candidates to lead the national party.
Powerless Democrats realize politics is local
"Six states -- only six states have Democratic governors in (Democratic majority) state legislatures. In the last eight years -- more than 900 seats in state legislatures went from Democrat to Republican. And it's mostly the legislatures that draw the congressional districts," she said to Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota liberal who is a frontrunner in the race.
That takeover of state-level politics by Republicans didn't happen overnight. It's been part of a methodical push that has allowed the GOP to outpunch its weight in Congress. Control of state houses helps lead to safer congressional districts in most states.
That's why while more Americans identify as Democrats than as Republicans (both trail the growing number of independents), the party is at a nadir of power both in Washington and in the country. Meanwhile, the faces of the candidates vying to lead the Democratic National Committee are mostly unknown to Americans despite the fact that eight years ago their party had a filibuster proof Senate majority and control of the White House. Now the winner of this contest will be charged with helping bring the party back from the desert of controlling nothing at all in Washington.
One remedy, alluded to at points by each of the candidates, is the need to re-focus away from national politics.
"Donald Trump has gotten to be like a computer virus in the American political system," said South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. "He ties up our minds and our processing power with these equations that don't even have any solutions until the system overheats and breaks down."
He added later that, "Our opponents on the Republican side have patiently and cleverly built majorities at the state house level, Congress... It's not just about the White House. And when we fail to recognize that, we get into a whole lot of trouble, even when we have the White House, having our policies obstructed and trapped. And as you wind up in a situation like we are right now, where we don't have it, that's where we're really left out."
Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, blamed the organizing arm of former President Barack Obama's campaigns with draining resources and focus from local parties.
"State parties in this country are broken," said Harrison. "There are state parties in this country, right now, in two years, have - either they're defending one of the 25 US Senate seats or they have a governorship or they're trying to win back their state house and they barely have $35,000 cash-on-hand."
Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who was a member of Obama's administration and has the backing of many established Washington Democrats, didn't disagree.
"We're too short term all too frequently," said Perez, whose voice was hoarse from "going all over the country."
Ellison released a 100-day plan to start engaging Democrats nationwide at the local level.
"We have got to win up and down the ballots, from the dog catcher all the way up, and that is how we're going to be ready," he said.
Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown said the national party needs to give states and state governments more leeway.
"You know, as DNC chair, yes, it's a federal position. But they have been entirely too focused on the president's position," she said.
For Republicans, it was a years-long effort built on local parties and outside groups that focused almost exclusively on state legislatures.
It also relied on grassroots activism that brought new Republicans into the political process, particularly in 2009 as Democrats, who then controlled all of Washington, were passing Obamacare and other controversial priorities.
It was a painful process for the GOP. On the way to the Congressional majority, grassroots activists targeted moderate Republicans in primaries.
Democrats, more immediately, will need to also harness the excitement and engagement they've seen at townhalls in recent weeks.
Engagement was a key message of Obama as he was on his way out of office. And now the DNC candidates are seizing on it. Buttigieg said Wednesday that people frustrated by Trump and his policies should get involved.
"Don't get mad. Get on your school board," said Buttigieg after a question about Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.