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Democrats Face Real Political Crisis Ahead Of November Election


The Republican Party has an identity problem as the rise of Donald Trump over more conventional presidential candidates makes clear. But NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson says it's the Democrats who face a real political crisis.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama has had many successes - healthcare reform, climate change, Wall Street regulation. But, says analyst Larry Sabato, his legacy will also include one huge failure, a diminished Democratic Party.

LARRY SABATO: Every president has cost his party hundreds of positions, but nobody has come close to Barack Obama. He's cost them more House, Senate, state legislative governor seats than anybody.

LIASSON: Under President Obama, the Democrats went from 60 Senate seats to 46, from 257 House seats to 188 and there are now nine fewer Democratic governors than in 2009. All in all, there are now fewer Democrats holding elected office nationwide than at any time since the 1920s. There are lots of reasons for this. The biggest, says political analyst Charlie Cook, is that there are two different electorates in America.

CHARLIE COOK: There's presidential election America when the turnout is big, it's broad, it's diverse. It looks more or less like the country. But then we have midterm election America where the turnout is older, it's wider, it's more conservative, it's more Republican.

LIASSON: What's great for Republicans and bad for Democrats is that the vast majority of the governorships and the state legislative seats are elected in the midterms.

COOK: And that's your seed corn. Those are your farm teams for higher-level offices. And it's pretty close to wiping out.

LIASSON: This is something President Obama lamented when he campaigned for Democrats in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. Republicans manage to turnout their voters every two years, but Democrats, for some reason, only turn their voters out every four. Maybe, President Obama mused, because Democrats just don't think midterms are sexy enough.


BARACK OBAMA: A lot of Democrats don't vote during midterms. We just don't. Young people, African-Americans, Latinos, we just oftentimes don't vote during midterms.

LIASSON: In addition, Democrats had one spectacularly bad piece of luck. The Republican's Tea Party-fueled surge in 2010 was perfectly timed to coincide with the once-every-10-year census, after which new congressional district boundaries are drawn by governors and state legislators. Republicans' huge gains in the 2010 midterms put them in the driver seat when it came time to draw new congressional districts in 2011. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell remembers what happened when Republicans took over the governor's mansion and the legislature in his state.

ED RENDELL: When I left office - I left office in January of 2011 - there were 13 Democratic congressmen and six Republican congressmen. As a result of redistricting in the 2010 election, that turned around and we now have 13 Republican congressmen and five Democratic congressmen.

LIASSON: But it's not only bad timing and gerrymandering that's responsible for the hollowing out of the Democratic Party. Mo Elleithee, a former DNC official, says Democrats haven't put enough effort and resources into state legislative races.

MO ELLEITHEE: Democrats just have not played that game as well as Republicans have. Part of that is resources. The Republicans have more money that they pump into those races. So resources is part of the problem, and just the lack of focus on these races has been part of the problem.

LIASSON: The president's party has another problem that makes it easier for Republicans to draw congressional and state legislative districts that disadvantage Democrats. Democratic voters are clumped together in urban areas. You could say that for the purposes of winning elections, Democratic voters are just not efficiently distributed, says Errol Louis, a New York City-based political analyst.

ERROL LOUIS: What we have now is major cities in even red states like Texas that are solidly Democratic. I mean, who whoever would've thought we would have ever seen an out lesbian mayor of a city like Houston or an openly gay mayor in Salt Lake City. I mean, what you have is Democrats clustering in and around cities and they win.

LIASSON: But they don't win enough suburban or rural congressional seats. Louis thinks Democratic voters are not really aware of how much is at stake this fall. But Larry Sabato thinks that might change because the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has also put the balance of power on the High Court up for grabs.

SABATO: You have all three branches clearly on the chopping block in November - Senate, White House and the Supreme Court. And that's rare to have everything on the line at once. If the Democrats lose the presidency, they are truly out in the cold. What do they control?

LIASSON: So this November, the stakes could not be higher for the Democrats. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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