AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Democrats know they are headed for a wipeout. David Shor, Barack Obama’s former data guru, took to Twitter last month to warn Democrats that if they did not change course, they faced not just losing Congress this November, but the prospect of a Republican President with more than 60 seats in the US Senate come January of 2025. Shor has been outspoken about the need for Democrats to moderate, especially on hot-button cultural issues. After being ignored for years, there is some evidence his message is beginning to resonate even among committed liberals.
“My fear continues to be that sometimes we as Democrats run on things that we wish the voters cared about, rather than what the voters do care about,” Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist, conceded to Politico. Roginsky said she felt her party was still making that mistake when it came to the belief, common in Democratic circles, that the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade would provoke a backlash which would aid Democrats.
“To hold the House or Senate,” another top Democratic pollster told Politico, “we need inflation to go away.” But few Democrats charged with defending the party’s slim Congressional majorities see the disappearance of inflation as a probability, so they need to plan for the worst. “I just don’t see how this isn’t a bloodbath for Dems,” another strategist observed in the same piece.
But how does a party prepare for the worst? The answer is that they need to triage unwinnable races, and focus on holding as much as they can with the resources they have. Even that will be no easy task.
The need to triage is why we are seeing Democrats prioritize gubernatorial and Senate races far above House races this year. For Democrats, the House is all but gone, and they have largely written it off already. The Senate is key to allowing any of Biden’s judicial or executive branch nominations to be confirmed, while the governor’s races control the future of the party and influence the policies Democratic voters and donors care about. Another piece will focus on Democrats’ strategy in the Senate. But first, let’s look at the troubled landscape Democrats face in their quest to hold onto governors mansions.
Given the increasingly zero-sum nature of redistricting and political power, losing control of the governorships in states like Wisconsin or Michigan is a nightmare for Democrats. It might mean the difference between abortion being banned after the first trimester and versions of Florida’s recent educational reforms passing, or blocking these measures for another four years. Finally, Democrats want to avoid what happened in 2010 when, in the words of Obama, the future of the Democratic party was wiped out. Democrats have too few viable candidates for higher office and even the presidency to afford to lose many of them. Throughout all of this, Democrats will need to keep both activists and donors happy, neither of whom are known for strategic analysis or ruthless pragmatism.
Satisfying activists and donors make triage a risky process. For one thing, some unwinnable races feature high profile candidates in whom the party base is deeply invested. In this climate, Beto O’Rourke stands little chance of defeating incumbent Governor Greg Abbott in Texas, nor quite frankly, does any Democrat running pose a serious threat to Ron DeSantis in Florida. Even grassroots favorite and Star Trek guest star Stacey Abrams is likely to struggle to win in Georgia in a poor climate for Democrats.
Abandoning any of these candidates, however, would prompt a grassroots revolt among both Democratic activists and donors. When it comes to Governors Abbott and DeSantis, both of whom have championed policies which have enraged Democrats, abandoning their opponents would make it appear that the Democrats are abandoning the fight on those issues.
For that reason, Democrats are likely to stay invested in those races, maintaining a fiction that they are competitive and winnable long after they it is clear they are lost causes. There will be more to lose in throwing in the towel, especially with down ballot races. So expect Democrats to maintain an insistence that Beto O’Rourke and Charlie Crist are fighting tossup races, while a steady stream of leading Democrats travel to Georgia to campaign for Stacey Abrams even if it looks like she will lose by 7-9%.
Easier to triage are those candidates running to gain Republican seats who lack the national profile of an Abrams or O’Rourke. That is especially true when it comes to gubernatorial races. Democrats made serious plays for Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, and South Dakota in 2018, in addition to Florida, Texas and Georgia. All four of the former states have dropped off the map in terms of competitiveness in 2022.
Democratic efforts at the state level seem focused on their one serious offensive opportunity (other than Georgia where Abrams operates what is effectively a parallel party apparatus). In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs faces Kari Lake, a former television host endorsed by Donald Trump who forced the frontrunner, State Treasurer Sally Yee, out of the primary. The race is critical for Democrats as Lake is associated closely with the former president, whose complaints about the 2020 election she backs—complaints aimed at Hobbs. This creates a situation in which Democrats both fear the prospect of a Lake victory, and suspect, correctly or not, that she may be a weaker general election candidate than the environment would indicate. With Senator Mark Kelly also up for reelection, Democrats have no choice but to commit resources to the state anyway, and Hobbs, as their only state level official, and a young woman, is a prospective future national candidate if she wins. Hence, even as the national environment has darkened, and Hobbs has perhaps fallen slightly behind, Democrats have maintained an investment justified less by probability of victory than by the stakes.
The same factors that motivate Democratic support for Hobbs – the need to preserve a future bench, and fear of the consequences of Republicans winning – mean that Democrats are increasingly focused on defense at the state level. In Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Democratic governors are underdogs for reelection, and their defeat would usher in total GOP control.
The party also worries they could see the defeat of Democratic State AG Josh Shapiro’s campaign for governor in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control both houses of the legislature. By any qualitative metric, Shapiro should be favored. The Republican field is fragmented, with none of the candidates possessing a geographic base conducive either to fundraising or mounting a strong challenge to Shapiro in the Philly suburbs or Pittsburgh. Shapiro has raised $18 million over the last 18 months, more than his nine Republican opponents combined and ten times the amount raised by the Republican frontrunner, State Senator Doug Mastriano. Yet there is too much at stake for Democrats to rest easy in this national environment. The Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and have been trying to reform the election of State Supreme Court Justices to a district based system as opposed to the current at large system which has allowed Democrats 6-1 majority. That lopsided court majority has drawn Democratic-favoring maps for Congress, and changed the voting laws in the run-up to the 2020 elections. “With the GOP legislature that we have that is attempting to pass laws that would make us look more like Texas or Florida, the governor’s veto pen is just so important,” Anne Wakabayashi, a Democratic media consultant, told SpotlightPA. This is the sort of race Democrats would feel confident in if Joe Biden were at 50% or even 46%, but fear they can lose if Biden remains at 42%.
If Pennsylvania is the most important state Democrats stand to lose if Biden’s numbers continue to decline, it is far from the only one, or the most Democratic leaning. Polls show a generic Republican leading by almost 18% in Oregon, where term-limited Democrat Kate Brown is deeply unpopular, and Tim Walz in Minnesota, while popular and favored, is far from safe. Republicans will likely win both houses of the legislature and may even knock off State AG Keith Ellison this November. Walz losing would leave Minnesota under total GOP control for the first time in almost 50 years.
Even Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York are far from entirely safe. In Maine, former Governor Paul LePage is returning to challenge his Democratic successor, Janet Mills. LePage defied the odds to win twice in 2010 and 2014, and Maine, with its large working-class and rural white population, is not a good match for the current Democratic coalition. Mills again is probably favored, but Democrats cannot rest secure in a wave year.
In Maryland, two-term Republican incumbent Larry Hogan is retiring and Democrats should be favored. But they have a field divided among various factions of their coalition, while Hogan has thrown his weight behind his Secretary of Commerce, Kelly Schulz.
In Massachusetts, incumbent Republican Charlie Baker is retiring and the Democratic AG is the presumed favorite, but there is a longstanding curse afflicting the state’s Democratic Attorneys General. In 1998, 2006, and 2014, they lost races they were favored to win.
Finally, in New York, Kathy Hochul’s numbers are anemic, she has seen her redistricting plans collapse in the face of state court rulings, and her Lt. Governor has been arrested on corruption charges. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin is presumed to be too conservative to win, but again, Democrats want to make sure to preserve their control of the state government and one of their younger, female governors.
In sum, at the state level, Democrats are probably relatively safe only in California, Colorado, and Rhode Island. The scale of the playing field is a testament to just how much defense they must play, which explains not only why they have abandoned Ohio, but why they really cannot afford to waste millions on suicide runs in Texas and Florida. If their activists and donors force them to, they could end up turning a bad year into a wipeout that could reduce Democratic control to less than a fourth of the state governments in the country.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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