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All party political success is local

Last week brought the best news for Democrats that nobody heard about.

A top operative, the man who managed one of the most critical elements of building his party's backbone, resigned from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). He had been its political director since 2001 and executive director since 2007.

Under him, Democrat-held seats in state legislative bodies dropped to their lowest level in almost 100 years. Those seats are critical to building the bench of any party.

In the 14 years he had been in office, Republicans shrewdly built their party from the ground up, with a clear plan of recruiting, funding and strategizing to win at the most local level. They set out to win state legislative seats across the country, and they did.

While the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) raised more than $140 million during this time, the DLCC raised less than half that.

Why does all of this matter?

State House and Senate seats are where elected officials connect to people and communities in the most intimate, meaningful ways, where relationships are formed and policy is made, policy that is now distinctly more Republican than Democrat across the country.

Democrats have had less and less impact at the state and local levels, giving Republicans an incredible young bench from which to recruit for other offices, from statewide-elected attorneys general, treasurers and governors to Congress.

Barack Obama is the perfect example of a time when the Democrats' state bench was vibrant: He went from an Illinois state Senate seat to the U.S. Senate and the presidency in under four years.

In fact, 22 of our 44 presidents came from state legislatures, including Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.

In short, the down-ballot races matter, because a good bench makes presidents out of state legislators.

Republicans have gained 913 state legislative seats in the past few election cycles; they control more than 4,100 of the 7,000 state legislative seats in the country, their highest number since 1920.

Democrats lost 11 legislative chambers in last year's midterm elections, giving the GOP control of 30 state legislative bodies.

It is stunning that no one at the DLCC thought to shift strategy, message and resources; typically, when things are not working, you make changes. But no one there did.

With new leadership at the DLCC, Democrats could make some advances in the redistricting that comes up with the 2020 census — but it is imperative for them to take back some statehouse seats before they get a chance to take back Congress from Republicans.

The way the district lines are drawn, there are few legislatures that Democrats control. So, rebuilding the party must start with state representative races and in town squares.

You also have to wonder why anyone would fund a failed entity without demanding an overall restructuring. Last year, an independent expenditure committee formed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with the AFSCME, the National Federation of Teachers, the Teamsters and the National Education Association, dumped a combined total of more than $5 million into an entity that handed Republicans the largest share of state legislative wins in nearly a century.

How the country's 432 House districts look comes, in essence, from the way state legislatures and governors draw them based on census figures. Right now, Democrats are in the hole in state chambers and governors' offices; unless they flip around that disadvantage before the redrawing of districts, the GOP has the potential to hold its House majority for a long time.

The 2016 election is the first opportunity for Democrats to start regaining leverage in state chambers. How they do in that election cycle and in the following two cycles is paramount for both parties.

Who is best equipped to win?

The advantage is held by Republicans for now. But nothing motivates most people more than losing — something that Democrats have been doing on this level for 14 years.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).


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