From The Wall Street Journal
COLUMBUS, Ohio—Democrat Chris Redfern was confident of his re-election chances, and with good reason. Voters in his state House district had elected Democrats for decades, and he was Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman.
Yet on election day, Mr. Redfern lost to a tea-party Republican, a defeat that drove him from politics into a new line of work, running an inn and winery.
Mr. Redfern’s political exit came amid a string of midterm-election losses
by Democrats in Ohio and nationwide that reflected a deeper problem: As the party seeks its next generation of candidates, the bench has thinned.
A tepid economy and President Barack Obama
’s sinking approval ratings contributed to some of the Democratic losses last fall. The setbacks also revealed a withering of the campaign machinery built by Mr. Obama’s team more than seven years ago. While Democrats held the White House, Republicans have strengthened their hand in statehouses across the U.S.
Democrats maintain a significant electoral college advantage as shifting U.S. demographics
tilt their way. This spring, a Pew Research Center analysis found that 48% of Americans either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with 39% who identify with Republicans or lean Republican.
But many Democrats worry that GOP success capturing state and local offices will erode that advantage before they have a chance to rebuild.
“If you don’t have a well-funded state party, if you don’t have state infrastructure, then you’re just whistling past the graveyard,” Mr. Redfern said. From his new perch in the hospitality industry, he described leading the state party as the “worst job in politics.”
After two presidential victories, Mr. Obama presides over a Democratic Party that has lost 13 seats in the U.S. Senate and 69 in the House during his tenure, a net loss unmatched by any modern U.S. president.
Democrats have also lost 11 governorships, four state attorneys general, 910 legislative seats, as well as the majorities in 30 state legislative chambers. In 23 states, Republicans control the governor’s office and the legislature; Democrats, only seven.
Such losses help shape the future: An ousted state lawmaker doesn’t run for Congress; a failed attorney general candidate loses a shot at the governor’s office. As a result, the flow of fresh political talent rising to statewide and national prominence in the years ahead won’t be as robust as Democrats hope.
The party’s failure to elect more governors, for example, has shrunk the pool of potential Democratic presidential candidates, one reason few have challenged Hillary Clinton
for the 2016 nomination
For now, the two parties wield their influence in competing branches of government: Republicans in control of Congress, using state-level dominance to draw congressional districts friendly to GOP candidates; and Democrats in the White House, using their demographic advantage nationwide.
In few places are the Democrats’ troubles more apparent than in Ohio, the perennial presidential battleground state twice won by Mr. Obama. Ohio Democrats lost every statewide contest in the November midterms, allowing the GOP to build supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Democrats won just a quarter of races last year for county commissioner—the local masters of land-use rules, as well as county roads, jails and a host of other government services.
The losses in Ohio are the consequences of failing to develop a strong corps of local officeholders and the campaign machinery to support them, Democrats in the state say.
One reason Democrats have struggled to recruit candidates for higher office is that the pipeline has been choked off by a redistricting process dominated by the GOP. In Ohio, a five-member state committee made up of elected officials draws the district lines for state legislative seats that serve as a springboard to higher office.
The Ohio League of Women Voters, which has been studying redistricting for decades, says district boundaries now favor Republican candidates—just as in the past, Democrats drew lines that benefited their party, according to Carrie Davis, executive director.
An independent study of Ohio’s redistricting process in 2011 concluded: “The party in power used the process to gain maximum political advantage.” Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state Legislature 2 to 1.
With a shallow bench, Ohio’s Democratic candidate for governor, Ed FitzGerald, a former mayor and county executive, faced little opposition in the party primary. Once nominated, bad news undermined his candidacy, including the revelation that he drove for years without a valid driver’s license. He lost by 30 percentage points in November to incumbent Gov. John Kasich.
Mike Zickar, chairman of the Wood County Democratic Party, said members of his executive board confided to him that even they didn’t vote for Mr. FitzGerald, instead leaving the top of the ballot blank.
Without an inspiring candidate at the top of the ticket, Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections couldn’t rely on a broad network of volunteers, the kind of force that boosted Mr. Obama to wins in Ohio in 2008 and 2012. The state party mustered three paid field staff members; two years earlier, with Mr. Obama’s re-election bid in full swing, the number was 600.
“I offered to do more, work-wise, but nobody ever contacted me,” said Loree Resnik, a neighborhood team leader during Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who lost her bid for secretary of state last year, said Democrats asked for a visit by Mr. Obama or first lady Michelle Obama, an invitation the White House said was never received.
“We would have loved to have the president come into Ohio,” Ms. Turner said. “They didn’t come…I’m not going to mince words about it. We needed help in 2014, and we did not get it.”
White House officials said the president did all he could to boost fellow Democrats, headlining dozens of fundraisers and appearing at a handful of campaign events during the midterm campaign. They said he was willing to do more but few candidates wanted to share a stage with the president, whose popularity was slipping at the time.
Obama campaign officials said the president’s campaign staff shared voter files, data and volunteer lists with Ohio Democrats. But they acknowledged that the energy and manpower that boosted Mr. Obama’s White House bids in 2008 and 2012 couldn’t be easily replicated in last year’s midterm elections.
“People have a false expectation that because Obama was able to create all this enthusiasm that it was directly transferrable to the next campaign,” Aaron Pickrell, a top Obama campaign official in Ohio, said of Democrats’ struggles in 2014. “It doesn’t mean that Obama can just flip a switch and say, ‘Now go work for these people.’”
Ohio’s Democrats are trying to regroup. This spring in Columbus, party officials began training candidates for local office on everything from how to ask their friends for money to when to put up yard signs.
During a Saturday morning session, candidates for city councils, mayor and the state Legislature watched PowerPoint presentations and lobbed questions at Democratic officials about the nuts and bolts of campaigning.
Ms. Turner, the former candidate for secretary of state, told the few dozen Democratic hopefuls that “the glitz and the glamour seem to be on the federal level…but this is where the rubber meets the road.”
In nearby Union County, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who succeeded Mr. Redfern, joined a statewide listening tour aimed at re-energizing the party. One conclusion, detailed in a report by state Democratic leaders: We need better candidates.
Written in the aftermath of Mr. FitzGerald’s defeat, the report said: “A strong bench of effective public servants at all levels comprises the heart of a strong state party.” A priority for the state party will be “recruiting and cultivating candidates who connect with voters, win elections at all levels, and once they enter office, make a difference on the issues that matter most in the lives of their constituents.”
Democrats are quick to say they will rebound, just as the GOP bounced back from setbacks in 2006 and 2008. At the same time, some Democrats say the party can’t ignore its state-level defeats.
“We have a little bit of blue in the West Coast. A little bit of blue in the Northeast, and occasional blue elsewhere. But, boy, it’s a bright red map in all of those big, square states,” said former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. “That’s where I do worry about recruiting and building a bench and finding ways to connect with real voters. We’re not doing a very good job of that.”
On the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton has assured local Democrats that she is aware of past setbacks and is committed to making the party more competitive at all levels. More states need a “permanent Democratic Party,” she has said.
Earlier this month in Iowa City, Mrs. Clinton mentioned Iowa Republican Joni Ernst’s victory over the Democratic candidate in the 2014 race to succeed longtime Democratic senator Tom Harkin. “I want to help rebuild the Democratic Party in Iowa because you can’t have a loss like having Tom Harkin retire and not be really motivated to get other Democrats in there,” she said.
Some Democrats blame Mr. Obama, saying his political machine, Organizing for Action, was good at electing him president but has done little for other candidates.
“That did hurt the Democratic Party, because a lot of money went into OFA that might have ordinarily gone into the Democratic National Committee,” said Howard Dean, a former DNC chairman.
The Obama team “basically ignored” the party, said Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Obama’s defenders said he has left a lasting legacy by modernizing campaigns with data and technology.
“The tools and the tech culture that defined the Obama operation are now ingrained here at the party,” Mo Elleithee, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said before leaving the job last month.
Mr. Pepper, Ohio’s party chairman, meanwhile told Democratic activists during his state tour: “Every volunteer who gets excited about Hillary Clinton, we can’t let them leave a year later. Every piece of information we enter into the voter file, we keep and learn from not just to win in ’16, but to win in ’18.”