Democratic Party Machinery Shows Rust
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Leaders worry losses of state, local offices create shortage of top candidates.
Democrat Chris Redfern was confident of his re-election chances, and with good reason. Voters in his state House district had elected Democrats for decades, and he was Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman.
Yet on election day, Mr. Redfern lost to a tea-party Republican, a defeat that drove him from politics into a new line of work, running an inn and winery.
Mr. Redfern’s political exit came amid a string of midterm-election losses by Democrats in Ohio and nationwide that reflected a deeper problem: As the party seeks its next generation of candidates, the bench has thinned.
A tepid economy and President Barack Obama’s sinking approval ratings contributed to some of the Democratic losses last fall. The setbacks also revealed a withering of the campaign machinery built by Mr. Obama’s team more than seven years ago. While Democrats held the White House, Republicans have strengthened their hand in statehouses across the U.S.
Democrats maintain a significant electoral college advantage as shifting U.S. demographics tilt their way. This spring, a Pew Research Center analysis found that 48% of Americans either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with 39% who identify with Republicans or lean Republican.
But many Democrats worry that GOP success capturing state and local offices will erode that advantage before they have a chance to rebuild.
“If you don’t have a well-funded state party, if you don’t have state infrastructure, then you’re just whistling past the graveyard,” Mr. Redfern said. From his new perch in the hospitality industry, he described leading the state party as the “worst job in politics.”
After two presidential victories, Mr. Obama presides over a Democratic Party that has lost 13 seats in the U.S. Senate and 69 in the House during his tenure, a net loss unmatched by any modern U.S. president.
Democrats have also lost 11 governorships, four state attorneys general, 910 legislative seats, as well as the majorities in 30 state legislative chambers. In 23 states, Republicans control the governor’s office and the legislature; Democrats, only seven.
Such losses help shape the future: An ousted state lawmaker doesn’t run for Congress; a failed attorney general candidate loses a shot at the governor’s office. As a result, the flow of fresh political talent rising to statewide and national prominence in the years ahead won’t be as robust as Democrats hope.
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