Republicans won 2015 last week – on to 2016

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 37-

This week:

  • Big odd-year election win for GOP
  • A hint of more to come for Dems after Obama?
  • Kentucky at the tail end of Southern realignment

Election 2015

Obama-less ballot: In last Tuesday’s off-year election, Republicans won several crucial victories.

Not all the news was good. In an off-year with low turnout, unions were out in force in Pennsylvania to protect issues critical to their continued survival. With better funding and organization, Democrats won the Supreme Court races soundly in Pennsylvania, which will have an effect later in the next round of state legislative redistricting there.

But in general, Republicans had the upper hand, even in contested legislative by-elections in the Keystone State. What’s more, conservative ideas and issues won the day — even some of the less popular ones, and even in places not known for conservatism. Portland, Maine, rejected a $15 minimum wage at the behest of local business owners. Houston rejected a transgender equality bill that would have created a de jure right of men who personally identify as women to use women’s restrooms. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly voted to fire a sheriff closely identified with a policy of protecting illegal immigrants convicted of felonies from federal deportation proceedings.

But the big-ticket party wins came in Virginia and Kentucky, which hold their elections in even-numbered years. In Virginia, the GOP held the state Senate against a well-funded push by gun control groups to help give Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, a stronger foothold in Richmond. That was impressive, but not entirely unexpected.

In contrast, Republican businessman Matt Bevin was widely expected (including by us) to lose, trailing in non-partisan polls by about five percent across the board. We said Bevin was likely to lose, but we also pointed to how wrong the polls had been in 2014, and added that a win by Bevin would signal that Kentucky was finally turning red in earnest. (More on that below.)

Not only did Bevin win by a truly shocking nine-point margin, but the entire statewide Democratic ticket just barely avoided a clean sweep against a historically weak crop of GOP candidates. The Democratic State Auditor, Adam Edelen, was defeated after an embarrassing amount of fawning punditry setting him up as a rising Democratic star and the presumptive challenger to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R, in 2016. Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, D, only narrowly escaped defeat, as did Andy Beshear, D, the son of the retiring Democratic governor, who won the race for attorney general by the skin of his teeth. Republicans elected Kentucky’s first black and first black female lieutenant governor, and hold five of the seven constitutional executive offices.

To be sure, part of the explanation is Kentucky’s glacial and often halting realignment to the GOP. But there’s a bigger question here that underscores Democrats’ loss of elected positions under President Obama.

Since 2008, there has been a surge in punditry about a permanent Democratic majority, based mostly on demographic considerations. But for three years now, we have been asking a different question here: What if this was all just about Obama, and what happens to the Democratic Party after Obama is history?

Obama expanded the electorate at the margins in the two races where he appeared on the ballot. He brought out many new voters in 2008. He brought fewer of them out in 2012, and this suggested that the tide of enthusiasm was receding already. In all the other elections since he came to power — the ones where he was not personally on the ballot — his voter coalition has repeatedly failed to show up and save the day.

In 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, Obama was not on the ballot, and Democrats lost badly. In 2013, the results were less one-sided — Democrats did narrowly win in Virginia amid very special circumstances. Yet even before leaving office, Obama has left behind a party in tatters. Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats since he was sworn in in 2009, 12 governorships, 13 Senate seats, and 69 House seats. Republicans now control 69 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. Most of the damage — but not all — occurred in elections where he was not on the ballot. And Obama will never be on a ballot again.

On the other hand, the Democrats’ poor performances came in non-presidential election years. Democrats are supposedly poised to do better in 2016. But what if they don’t do better enough? The bottom line for Democrats is what the political landscape looks like when Obama is gone. The signs are there — especially in Hillary Clinton’s poor poll numbers — that they will not simply coast to power through demographic change and data mining.

Kentucky Realignment: In addition to this national theme, the Kentucky race echoes an age-old story of Southern realignment that predates Obama certainly and most of today’s political players. This trend has struck only in this century in several southern states.

We have been pointing out for two years now (dating back to the early days of Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign) that despite many pundits’ preconceptions, Kentucky has long been a Democratic state, and in many ways it remains so — or at least it did before 2014. The Bluegrass State has long been susceptible to a sort of populist liberalism, which smart Democratic politicians like the retiring Gov. Steve Beshear have managed to harness.

This did not immediately change when the state began electing Republicans to federal offices. The GOP became more competitive in federal races beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. It went on to dominate those contests after Jim Bunning’s narrow 1998 victory and into the new century. Republicans currently hold all but one House seat and both Senate seats, even if (as in 2004, 2008 and 2010) it hasn’t always been easy to hold them. No Democratic presidential candidate is likely to win Kentucky any time soon.

Yet Democrats have managed to keep a strong grip on the state government, holding the state House steadfastly and controlling most of the constitutional statewide offices consistently. Kentucky seemed prepared for a full realignment in 2003, when Ernie Fletcher became governor, but he went on to lose the voters’ faith in scandals.

Bevin will be only the third Republican governor elected in Kentucky since the end of World War II. As recently as 1995, the state had more than twice as many registered Democratic as Republican voters. Today, Republicans have closed that gap significantly, such that there are only four registered Democrats for every three Republicans. And 2015 marked the first time in state history that more Republicans than Democrats voted in a gubernatorial primary.

Screenshot 2015-11-08 at 11.07.55 PM

To be sure, many of Kentucky’s registered Democrats haven’t voted Democratic very often in recent elections — but most have, and all still felt at least a very weak affinity with the party of their fathers. That is finally starting to change.

This follows a common pattern for Southern States, whose political history is more subtle than many want to believe or understand. (Kentucky isn’t technically a Southern State, but it has many similar fundamentals at work.)

The simple story goes like this: Southern states have typically started voting for Republicans first at the presidential level, then for Congress, then for governor, then finally for state legislature. This process has taken five decades, and even longer if you look at the gradual rise of the GOP in the urban New South before they started winning.

But the pace has been glacial, and even then the story is too simplistic. Even at the presidential level, Richard Nixon in 1968 failed to break 41 percent in 10 of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, and carried Virginia with just 43 percent. He won Kentucky with just 44 percent, because George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey split the ancestral Democratic vote in many states. Even Ronald Reagan only barely won in the Deep South states he carried against President Jimmy Carter.

For generations after Reconstruction, the Democratic Party of the South had stood for populism, segregation, and wounded Southern pride. But then the courts made racial equality a settled question of constitutional law. Republicans and northern liberal Democrats in Congress finally overcame Southern Democrats’ opposition to civil rights laws. And then…Southern voters eventually got over it and finally began to cast their ballots based on other issues.

This process took decades. Among other things, it required an entire generation of yellow-dog Democratic voters to die off. It wasn’t until the 1990s (more than a full generation after Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act) that Republicans suddenly became competitive in the South in federal races. They began winning state races only this century. Only in the last 15 years have the state legislatures of Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas flipped to the GOP. Many of these have gone Red in the last five or six years. Today, every single one has a Republican governor, in sharp contrast to the situation in 2000.

Kentucky is among the last holdouts. If it is like its peers, it will go Red and not look back for some time. But as Fletcher’s example shows, it isn’t enough to win once. A lot depends on the performance of Bevin in office, the continued growth of the state GOP’s voter rolls, and the ability to pry Kentucky’s state House from Democratic hands. Tuesday’s election indicates that at the very least, the conditions are favorable for such a transformation.

Louisiana-Governor: There is a dark lining to this silver cloud for the GOP. With the endorsement of one of the losing GOP candidates from the first round, Democrat John Bel Edwards is now expected to win the gubernatorial runoff later this month against Sen. David Vitter, R, as we began to suspect and hinted two weeks ago.

Vitter’s name has quickly turned to mud in the polls, eight years after the embarrassing details of his solicitation of prostitutes were made public. A Vitter win would be an even bigger miracle than Bevin’s was, and it’s probably too much for even the most optimistic Republicans to expect. The GOP will, however, easily win all other constitutional elected offices, and maintain a near two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature.