By Reid Wilson - 02-22-17 06:00 AM EST
Near a nadir of political power, Democrats across the country say their comeback must begin with key races next year - and warn that failure to make big gains in state races in 2018 will doom them to another decade in the minority in Washington.
More than three-dozen states will choose governors in the next two years, while voters pick state legislative candidates in thousands of districts across the country.
In the vast majority of cases, those legislators and governors will draw new political boundaries following the 2020 census that will determine just how competitive the battle for the U.S. House of Representatives will be in the following decade.
"The 2018 races are central not only to the individual states, but also to the federal policies in the House of Representatives," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview. "The key that unlocks the governors' doors also unlocks the House of Representatives. And we've got to get the national team to understand that."
As Republicans captured control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, Democrats have suffered deep losses at the state and local level in recent years.
Republicans control about 4,170 state legislative seats across the country, almost 1,000 more than they held in 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn in. Today, 33 governors are Republican; when Obama took office, just 21 governors were Republican.
"Their backs are against the wall," said Matt Walter, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that supports GOP candidates in state-level races. "In 2018, they're in full panic mode about it, so we're anticipating as a result of that, that they're going to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink to try to restore the ground that they've lost."
Those state-level losses took a heavy toll on Democrats at the federal level: After the 2010 midterm elections, when anger over the Affordable Care Act and the tepid economic recovery cost Democrats more than 700 state legislative seats, Republicans drew favorable district lines in such states as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio in the decennial redistricting process.
Now, Democratic governors and groups that support state legislative candidates are sounding the alarm, warning party donors and operatives that their opportunities to win back seats at the redistricting table are growing short.
"This is the future of our party," said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has spoken with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about down-ballot Democratic efforts. "I said to Nancy, 'You can't win the Congress back, I don't care how much money you have, if you don't have lines that are competitive.'"
The importance of down-ballot races is not lost on Pelosi.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder has organized the National Democratic Redistricting Committee with the backing of former President Obama and headed by Pelosi lieutenant Kelly Ward, who helmed the House Democratic campaign arm in 2016.
The Democratic Governors Association has commissioned former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to raise awareness among top donors and to study election results from recent years to identify future opportunities.
"We all woke up over the past few years to the realization that Republicans beat us at the state and local level, and that that had far-reaching consequences for our numbers in the House," Israel said. "We whistled past the graveyard in 2008, when Republicans just decided they would focus their money and their field operations on knocking off Democratic governors and legislators and seizing control of redistricting for a decade."
After big wins in 2010 and 2014, Republicans will be on defense in 2017 and 2018. The party will defend open governor's seats in 15 states where the incumbent is term limited or retiring, including plum prizes in New Jersey, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. Republican incumbents are seeking re-election in 12 states including Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin, all states where Republican-led redistricting locked in safe GOP majorities.
Democrats are defending open seats in just four states: Virginia in 2017, then California, Colorado and Minnesota in 2018. The party has incumbents running for re-election in six states, including Pennsylvania, where Republicans hold 13 of 18 House seats.
McAuliffe, the only governor in America limited to one term by state law, said the race to replace him will be an early test of the Democratic strategy. Seventeen state legislative districts held by Republicans chose Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over President Trump in 2016.
"Virginia's the first opportunity to send a message about what you think of the Trump administration," McAuliffe said. Polls show a tight race between the two Democrats vying for the nomination and Ed Gillespie, the former RNC chairman who leads the race for the GOP nod.
History augers well for Democrats: Traditionally, the party that owns the White House suffers in state legislative and gubernatorial races.
"Statistically, we'll certainly acknowledge that those are the prevailing trend lines," Walter said. "However, there are exceptions to that."
McAuliffe is himself an exception: He was the first member of the president's party to win Virginia's governorship since Mills Godwin, a Republican, won in 1973, while Richard Nixon was president.
While races for federal office have become increasingly polarized in recent years, gubernatorial contests are less so. In 2016, five of the 12 gubernatorial races were won by candidates who represented the party that lost the state's Electoral College votes. Vermont and New Hampshire elected Republican governors at the same time Clinton won their electoral votes; West Virginia, North Carolina and Montana picked Democratic governors at the same time they voted for Trump.
Israel said he is examining what Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (D) and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) got right, alongside what unsuccessful Democrats got wrong.
"We need to study their playbook and apply those lessons to House, Senate and state legislative races across the country," he said.