Elections

How long will it take Democrats to become a national party again?

What the party breakdown in the House of Representatives will look like in 2017. Districts held by Republican are in red, those held by Democrats are in blue.
What the party breakdown in the House of Representatives will look like in 2017. Districts held by Republican are in red, those held by Democrats are in blue. Associated Press

More than a third of the newly elected Democrats in the House of Representatives next year will come from just three states: California, Massachusetts and New York.

Democrats from those three states likely will hold 66 seats out of at least 193 that the party will claim next year in the House, with several races still undecided. Republicans will control more than half of the chamber’s 435 seats.

The Democrats’ chances of taking over the House any time soon? Hard to imagine. And while they gained two additional Senate seats this year – leaving the GOP with a 52-48 edge – the party will be defending 25 seats in 2018. (Two are held by independents who caucus with the Democrats.) Ten of those seats are in states Trump won and could pose tough re-election fights for Democrats such as Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Roy Temple, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said his party learned the hard way this election that while tending to the base is important, its message has to adapt and speak to people where they live, whether it’s in the Missouri Bootheel or the neighborhoods around San Francisco Bay.

“The challenge facing us is those people who traditionally vote Democratic and those who have recently swung wildly to Republicans have much more in common,” Temple said. “There are people who are currently thinking that Democrats don’t care about them. We’ve got to make sure they know we do.”

The problem for them – and for Democratic hopes of ever taking over the House – is that not enough of their votes are in the right places.

The color-coded map of the 2017 party breakdown in the House precisely illustrates their dilemma. The map shows blue in a line up and down the West Coast, in a blanket around New York City and most of New England, and in isolated islands in an otherwise vast red sea of Republican-heavy states.

Their choice of party leaders emphasizes their narrow geography: the new Senate minority leader will be Chuck Schumer, a New York City Democrat. His chief deputy? Sen. Richard Durbin of Chicago. In the House, where Democrats have put off their leadership selection for two weeks, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has been leading House Democrats since 2007.

Some in the Democratic rank and file are growing restive over their continuing exile in the minority. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is challenging Pelosi for party leadership, said his roots in the industrial heartland are the foundation of his campaign. Ryan said Democrats have lost more than 60 House seats since 2010.

“We need to create America 2.0 ....that fights every day for ordinary people,” he said.

Pelosi seemed to acknowledge at a press conference last week that Democrats had ignored white working-class voters, once part of their political bedrock. She noted how Democrats had overcome Republican opposition in 2008-09, and with backing from President Barack Obama, bailed out the auto industry.

“Now, what does that affect?” Pelosi said. “Hundreds of thousands, millions of jobs in Ohio, Michigan, western Pennsylvania. But we didn’t message it so (those workers) understood.”

You can trace a lot of the Democrats’ current problems to the party’s grassroots. Since Obama took office in 2009, Democrats have lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures. This election gave Republicans control in both state legislative chambers in 32 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“That’s more than at any other time in the history of the Republican Party,” NCSL says on its website. “They also hold more total seats, well over 4,100 of the 7,383, than they have since 1920.”

Why is this important, and further evidence that when it comes to winning back the House, Democrats face long odds?

Because in many states, it’s the state legislatures that decide what congressional districts will look like. It’s just politics 101 that the party in charge will draw lines to its advantage.

Take Pennsylvania: In 2010, it had 19 congressional seats and Democrats held a 12-7 advantage. The state lost one seat after the 2010 census. Republicans have controlled the Pennsylvania legislature since 2011. They will hold a 12-6 edge in the congressional delegation next year.

“The problem is the Republicans are incredibly strategic and we aren’t,” said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “The Republicans look at the political arena 10 to 20 years out. We look at the next election. So they figured wisely that if they can control legislatures in most states, every 10 years you get to draw the lines.”

It might not be all doom and gloom. Democrats made slight gains in red states like Arizona and Texas this year. And Obama told a press conference last week that one of his post-presidential tasks will be to help Democrats rejuvenate their grassroots and expand their map.

“How we organize politically, I think is something that we should spend some time thinking about,” the president said. “I believe that we have better ideas, but I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them, and one of the issues that Democrats have to be clear on is that given population distribution across the country, we have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level.”

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

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