Congressional Democrats are in retreat in more ways than one this week.
As Democratic senators gather in Baltimore to talk strategy and lick election wounds, their party faces diminished powers in Congress, GOP dominance in many states and a shrinking pool of potential candidates for future elections.
In the November elections, Democrats lost their eight-year Senate majority, and saw their House numbers fall to the lowest level in seven decades.
In the states, Republicans will hold 31 governorships, and more state legislative seats than they’ve had since 1928. It especially vexes Democrats to see Republicans dominate the U.S. House delegations and the state governments in several states that President Barack Obama won, including huge legislative majorities in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who said the party has “failed to do something that I think represents an opportunity for us. We really haven’t talked to the American people about what government does for them.”
The big gap between Democratic success at the presidential level and elsewhere “is a real dilemma, I think, for democracy really, not just the Democratic Party,” said Rep. David Price of North Carolina, a 14-term congressman and former Duke University political scientist. He said Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia display the “most egregious” examples of gerrymandered districts for congressional and state legislative races.
This long-practiced brand of partisan map-making, Price said, helps Republicans control the legislatures of states that vote Democratic for president. But in a sign of local Democrats’ struggles to change voters’ minds, Price said the best prospect for reversing the trend — in the South, at least — is in lawsuits that allege racial bias in the way Republicans drew district boundaries.
Obama’s veto power, plus Democratic senators’ ability to block some bills with filibusters, will limit GOP success in Congress over the next two years. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are limiting their ambitions and hoping for at least a partial thaw in partisan gridlock.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said he hopes both parties will move beyond campaign rhetoric and “get to a point where we can actually move the ball on some issues.” He pointed to a series of events this year “that could actually see breakthroughs or another breakdown, from the debt ceiling to Social Security disability to infrastructure.”
Congressional Republicans will naturally take credit for any legislative achievements, Warner said. However, he said, “a functioning government, when you’ve got a Democratic president, actually still helps Democrats.”
Many Democrats say the party needs to sharpen its messaging. They note that voters in several states last fall approved referendums to raise the minimum wage, and simultaneously ousted Democratic senators who backed the proposals.
“We believe we’re on the right side of the issues, and all we can do is keeping making the case,” Yarmuth said. “Hopefully we’ll get better at that.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said Democrats must do a better job of highlighting economic improvements and a dramatic increase in energy production under Obama’s watch. They should talk about initiatives, such as a higher minimum wage, and better training for workers, not as government programs but as common-sense ways to help workers, he said.
“We’re not battling to increase government,” Kaine said, “we’re battling to help everyday people.”
Some Democrats note that their congressional leaders have been around for decades, and don’t personify fresh ideas. The House’s top three Democratic leaders — Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn — are in their mid-70s. So is Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
More troubling to Democrats is Republican dominance of local politics in states that are competitive in presidential and Senate races.
Obama carried Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia twice, and North Carolina once. Yet Republicans hold big majorities in these states’ legislative chambers, except Virginia, where their Senate majority is narrow.
Of the 99 U.S House seats in these six states, Democrats hold 30.
These discrepancies can’t be blamed entirely on gerrymandering, said Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic strategist. Too often, he said, “we’ve done a lousy job of recruiting candidates” at all levels. Strong candidate recruitment — starting with mayors and state legislatures — builds a farm team of potential candidates for governor and Congress, Schale said.
“We’ve gotten away from a lot of that basic blocking and tackling,” he said.
Presidential politics remain the Democrats’ brightest spot. They’ve won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential races, and they have high hopes for a 2016 field that could feature Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Still, some Democrats worry that Clinton might come across as a stale, too-familiar politician. If Republicans nominate Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney, however, that issue might be negated.
Price predicts Republican lawmakers will turn off moderate voters by placating conservative hard-liners.
“We see the most extreme elements of the conference getting their wish list,” Price said. That gives Democrats a natural opening with “more reasonable and more moderate voters,” he said.
“The tea party agenda is energizing,” he said, “believe me.”
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