Why the Democrats Need to Care About Rural Voters

I want you to take a look at an image. It depicts which party controls the legislatures in our fifty states. If you see blue, it means that the Democrats control both chambers. If you see red, it means the Republicans control both chambers. And if you see fuchsia, it means that control is split, with each party controlling one of the two chambers. Nebraska has a unique unicameral legislature that is non-partisan but controlled by Republicans.

Now, there is some positive news for the Democrats relative to that image. After this past Tuesday’s elections, we can now change Washington state from fuchsia to blue, and, pending recounts, we may be able to change Virginia from red to fuchsia.

Overall, however, it paints a bleak picture for the left in this country. And there are other ways to measure this. Nationwide, there are 4,166 (56.4 percent) Republicans in our state legislatures compared to 3,114 (42.2 percent) Democrats. There are twenty-six states where the GOP has the trifecta, meaning they have the governor’s mansion plus both chambers of the legislature. The Dems can say the same in only six (with Washington, seven) states.

You should take special note of how many red states there are on that map in states that Clinton or Obama carried.

This is why I continue to talk about the need for Democrats to do better in small towns and rural America. I think Ezra Klein is absolutely correct to point out that Trump will lose his effort to win reelection even if he holds on to his small-town and rural support if he loses much support in the suburbs. The bloodbath the Republicans experienced on Tuesday in places like Northern Virginia, the Philadelphia suburbs, and Long Island should deeply concern Trump’s political team.

But the results look less promising for winning over our country’s legislatures, including either chamber of our U.S. Congress. That’s why I wrote that the Democrats didn’t do as well as you might think. The way I put it was that the Democrats did an excellent job of maximizing their strength so that it more closely resembles their true potential. They made sure to win where they should win, which is an important first step to winning back legislatures. What they didn’t do was make many inroads into the kinds of districts they’ll need to win back control of the legislatures in states like Pennsylvania.

Progress is progress, and it was a great night for the Democrats from almost every perspective. But it did not change the fact that the way the two parties’ support is currently distributed works heavily in favor of the Republicans when it comes to controlling legislatures.

And while the Democrats rightfully value executive power, they are the legislating party. They controlled Congress almost continually from 1933 to 1995, and both parties have developed skills, habits, and ideologies to match that history. Forced to choose, the Democrats should take legislative over executive power every single time. Likewise, the Republicans have no clue how to legislate or behave as a majority party, and they don’t seem likely to learn those skills anytime soon. They do much better in the governor’s office than they do trying to hold hearings with experts and formulate sensible policy.

The status quo is not just bad for the left, it’s bad for the right, too. It’s bad for the country to have two parties, each trying to fulfill roles that they’re very bad at performing. The Democrats are adequate executives, but they’re miserable as a minority opposition party. The Republicans are no better at legislating at the state level, where they think most power should reside, than they are on the federal level. Where they excel, when they excel at all, is in holding a majority party accountable.

So, aside from partisan preferences, we should not want to see an entire era of our country go by with these mismatched skills dominating the political landscape. The Democrats need to figure out how to win statewide legislatures again, and they need to find a way to win and hold the U.S. House of Representatives.

They should not be satisfied with winning the presidency most of the time. Beating Donald Trump is a priority, but it’s basically the lowest-hanging fruit. So, yes, the Democrats can be optimistic that an ascendant coalition of white professionals, immigrants, and minorities from our cities, inner suburbs and college towns will not lose another presidential election to Trump, but that won’t prevent the right from continuing to absolutely dominate most of our country’s political bodies.

A truly successful left-wing party in this country has to have more geographic and cultural depth than the Democrats have right now. Without it, the right will continue to have much more power than their numbers warrant, and the left will find itself stymied and checkmated most of the time even when they eke out narrow and transitory majorities.

That’s why I think Ezra Klein kind of misses the point even as he’s making a very solid and unassailable argument. He’s right that Trump can keep his base and still lose reelection in a landslide, but that’s only of secondary interest to me. The party shouldn’t be building itself to beat Trump. It should be much more ambitious than that, because beating Trump based only on superior base mobilization will leave the Republicans with far too much power.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.