Almost a decade later, Democrats are still struggling at the state level with the nationwide political devastation of Barack Obama’s presidency, notably his first midterm elections in 2010.
Obama is still popular among Democrats, although some of the 2020 candidates are taking shots at his insufficiently progressive record as a way to damage former Vice President Joe Biden. If they dared look honestly at Obama’s political legacy outside Washington, D.C., however, there would be a whole lot more criticism.
It looks likely to be a few more cycles, if then, before Democrats, the world’s second-oldest political party, fully recover from those immense losses under Obama’s party leadership.
In 2008, the Chicagoan defeated, first, Hillary Clinton and then John McCain to end Republicans’ two-term White House residency. Obama’s term began with his party controlling both chambers of Congress.
This is a treat for any president, and it enabled Obama and Democrats to ram through Obamacare without a single GOP vote, as well as an economic stimulus package costing a trillion dollars.
The president and his voluble No. 2, Biden, vowed such spending would almost immediately begin creating hundreds of thousands of “shovel-ready” new jobs.
The year 2010 did not start auspiciously for Democrats, with a Republican winning election to a Senate seat in true-blue Massachusetts, their first such defeat there in decades.
By November, the employment explosion had not materialized, and Americans began to smell the emptiness of Obama’s other oft-repeated vow, that under Obamacare, you could keep your doctor and health insurance plan.
A president’s name is not on any midterm election ballot. But modern midterms have become interim verdicts on a presidency. Results are almost always negative for his party. But rarely as negative as in 2010.
On Nov. 2 that year, Republicans gained six more Senate seats and a whopping 63 House seats, the worst midterm House losses for a party since 1938.
An important exception to historical presidential party losses came — wait for it — in 1998. Voters collectively expressed their displeasure with the GOP’s effort to impeach President Bill Clinton. The president’s party actually gained membership then, one of the few times in modern history.
Now, you know why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi so stubbornly resists her caucus’ enthusiasm for a useless Trump impeachment now, which might feel good to the faithful but would go nowhere anyway with a Republican Senate and likely with mainstream voters.
The damaging federal election results of 2010 were nothing compared to what happened in the states then and later when Democrats got their political clocks cleaned by aggressive Republicans.
Obama was less interested in state and local party fortunes than his own reelection and fundraising. After his 417 weeks in office, he’d held 416 fundraisers, an apt reflection of his priorities.
Under President Obama, Democrats lost upwards of 1,000 legislative seats along with control of chamber after chamber, plus numerous governors’ offices. In 2010 alone, the GOP captured control of 24 state legislative chambers, twice the historical average.
This enabled the GOP to pursue popular conservative agendas in state after state with little fear of gridlock or veto. Although you wouldn’t know it from D.C-centric media coverage, more significant, long-lasting legislation gets enacted at the state level.
Additionally, state legislatures and governors’ chairs are the farm teams of federal politics where up-and-comers practice their trade and build statewide name recognition that secures future election victories. Those GOP successes erased much of a generation of future federal Democrats.
However, perhaps most important from a long-term perspective, the Obama wounds handed state Republicans widespread control of legislative redistricting stemming from the 2010 Census, setting them up for enduring election successes.
Last fall, Democrats reclaimed control of the U.S. House. But despite a perceived national wave of anti-Trump sentiment, they only regained six state legislative chambers, half the historical average, while Republicans took one.
If the anti-Trump “fervor” is similarly tepid next year, a second term seems more likely.
Given the constriction of local journalism with its faltering finances, especially cuts in news coverage of state capitols, few of these developments make their way into the national consciousness.
Today, the GOP still controls both legislative chambers in 30 states, Democrats in 19.
This has created a historically unusual political scenario at the state level. It’s the first time in 105 years that every state with two legislative chambers but one (Minnesota) is totally controlled by a single party.
That’s a revealing indicator of the sharp partisan distinctions gripping the land today. And it sets the battle-grid for 2020’s state elections, which — here we go again — will determine who redraws state-level districts according to next April’s census results.