You can’t beat something with nothing. That’s the problem Democrats face in several states. In more than 20 states, there’s not a single Democrat in a top state position — and not just in traditionally red states such as Arizona, North Dakota and Texas, but in more competitive states like Florida, Michigan and Ohio as well. “This election wiped out some of the really promising, up-and-coming Democratic officials,” says Jon Ralston, a prominent commentator on politics in Nevada, where the GOP swept the board in November. “They have a serious rebuilding process to undergo right now.”
That process could take years. Many of today’s dominant Republican governors will face term limits in 2018. Still, even that far out, it’s hard to see which Democrats will be in a strong enough position to replace them. “In Michigan, I can think of eight or 10 potential governors in the Republican ranks,” says Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. “I’m hard-pressed to name one on the Democratic side.”
The remaining Democratic governors themselves are getting old. All but a couple are past the age of 55. By contrast, many Republican statewide officials are barely into their 40s. These Gen Xers reached adulthood during the Reagan presidency, and that whole age group is considered by demographers to be more conservative than the baby boomers before them and millennials after them.
Those in politics have been helped to power by a concerted GOP effort to build up its farm team. Groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been actively recruiting and funding candidates for downballot offices. There’s been no comparable effort among Democrats. For years, none was needed. Democrats simply had more foot soldiers in the states and were likelier to run for and capture posts such as attorney general or secretary of state.
But today it’s Republicans who dominate. They’ve benefited, in part, from elections held in presidential off-years when voters tend to be more white, rural and conservative.
Although Democrats still dominate the ranks of big-city mayors and hold many congressional seats, it’s sometimes difficult for them to run successfully for statewide office as urban districts are generally more liberal than their states as a whole and are often resented by out-state voters.
In nearly a dozen legislative chambers, the number of Democratic members is down to single digits. “There’s really an amazingly depleted bench at the state level for the Democrats,” says Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University.
But no advantage in politics, no matter how broad or deep, lasts forever. There are states where Republicans have momentum now, but can remember being virtually shut out just a few years ago. “It’s a pretty remarkable turnaround from 10 or 12 years ago,” says Frank McNulty, a former Republican speaker of the Colorado House. “The Democrats wiped out our bench and we were left wondering who was going to be primed to run for that higher statewide office.”