The election-night fiasco in the states that will haunt Democrats for a decade

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There are two different ways of looking at how change happens in American politics. Some people put the emphasis on “top down,” while others think the better way to ponder long-term trends in government is “bottom up.”

Students of top-down analysis typically look at the way outsize leaders can impose their ideas and priorities on the broader political culture — often exerting an influence that echoes long after their time in office. No matter what one thinks about Donald Trump, he’s a good example of a politician with top-down power.

Practitioners of bottom-up theory believe the personalities that dominate national politics often matter less than ideas and long-term trends — currents of history that typically flow not from Washington but the states and communities where voters actually live.

One reason it will take a good long time to make sense of the 2020 election is that the results look very different — almost contradictory — when viewed from top-down versus bottom-up. More voters came out than ever in American history to dislodge Trump from the White House. At the same time, his party largely preserved and, in many cases, fortified its advantages deep in the states, where both establishment Republicans and a new breed of Trump loyalists had a very good election.

As part of The Fifty, a POLITICO series exploring the intersection of state, local and national politics, we assembled a group of our reporters who cover politics from a bottom-up perspective — that is, with a special focus on the states — for an election postmortem.

Two big questions animated the conversation, which included Matt Dixon, who reports on Florida politics from Tallahassee; Ally Mutnick, who covers state trends from the main newsroom in Washington; Sabrina Rodriguez, who has been covering 2020, Latino voters and state legislative races from Miami; and Renuka Rayasam, who reports on Texas from El Paso.

The first question: How bad was the Democratic setback in the states?

The answer, the journalists all agreed: Pretty damn bad. It was a comprehensive failure for the Democrats’ hopes of replicating the big GOP victory in 2010, which reached far down into statehouses and allowed Republicans to dominate the redistricting process that gave them a structural advantage for the decade that followed. Democrats looking for good news have to squint hard through the smoldering haze of an election night that, from their perspective, was defined by over-promise, under-deliver.

The second question: What new trends were on display in last week’s results that will define the decade ahead?

POLITICO journalists identified several, including the new sophistication and nuance with which both parties are likely to pursue the Hispanic vote, new centrist-vs.-ideologue battles taking place in the states among both parties, and an infusion of new political and legal strategies (as well as big political money to pursue them) likely to flood into statehouses as activists and donors increasingly reckon that these are pivotal arenas in the battle for power.

Democratic Doldrums

“It was a total wipeout for Democrats here,” Dixon said of the Florida results.

Same here, said Rayasam from Texas, where Democrats narrowed the margins in both national and state elections from earlier years but didn’t score wins in either. She said this leaves them with a fundamental strategic question: Is flipping Texas a realistic near-term opportunity, worthy of big effort and resources, or is Texas merely a state to chip away at slowly over the longer term?

“I think there’s a lot of soul-searching happening by Democrats right now in Texas about: Do we keep fighting? Is Texas still a battleground? It’s not a purple state, but is it a battleground? Or did they just give up? Because there’s a lot of money and time invested in here in terms of the state House race,” Rayasam said, adding: “They didn’t necessarily lose ground from previous years. And so I think Democrats will be trying to figure out: is not losing ground considered progress, or not?”

Rodriguez noted that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee was on target to spend $50 million on their “Flip Everything” campaign aimed at state legislatures. In a valiant effort to put on a happy face, she said, “The spin that we’ve seen now is Democrats saying, ‘Well, you can’t lose something you didn’t have,’ but they did lose a lot of money in the process to have this showing in 2020.”

Beyond desperate spin, Mutnick identified a few more genuine grounds for modest optimism among Democrats about the decennial redistricting process. One is the trend toward less partisan redistricting, as was evidenced in Virginia by voters backing a referendum to turn the process over to an independent commission.

Since long-term demographic changes generally favor Democrats, they will likely do fine in any process that isn’t nakedly partisan (though some Democrats in Virginia, where the Legislature is now Democratic, were looking forward to doing unto others as was previously done unto to them.) Also, Mutnick said, Democrats have generally gained when courts have intervened in redistrictings: “I think it’s possible that we have more court-drawn maps this cycle than we did in 2010.”

The Long Term

One welcome victim of the 2020 elections: The overly simplistic assumption that Hispanic voters can be lumped for political purposes in a mostly predictable bloc.

“I think the first thing is we need to rethink what is the Latino vote, because Cubans in Miami don’t have the same interests as Mexican Americans in Arizona, don’t have the same interests as Puerto Ricans in central Florida,” Rodriguez said. While Hispanics plainly helped shift Arizona at the presidential level in Democrat Joe Biden’s favor, it is also clear that Trump’s anti-socialism message resonated with many voters beyond Cuban Americans in South Florida.

Long term, Rodriguez and Rayasam agreed, is much more targeted and locally oriented appeals to Hispanic voters by both parties, and an understanding by Democrats especially that they can’t be taken for granted.

Each panelist also identified a person, or an idea, that we will be hearing more of in the years ahead.

Mutnick’s idea was litigation, and the person she’ll be watching is Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who was general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. The 51-year-old Elias has taken the lead on challenging maps that Democrats argue are drawn with the aim of diluting the power of progressive voters, including minorities.

“His knowledge of election law is profound,” Mutnick said. “And he’s dedicated to helping achieve what Democrats feel to be fair maps. … So to the extent that he can pursue that legal avenue throughout the next decade, that’s going to be huge in different states for Democrats and getting maps that are more favorable to them.”

Dixon sees in Tallahassee a Florida version of the progressive vs. establishment battles that have played out in Washington. The equivalent there of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is an Orlando-area state representative named Anna Eskamani, a 30-year-old Iranian American.

“She’s very progressive, kind of goes after her own party on Twitter, is kind of expected to at least consider running for governor in 2022 even though she’s relatively young,” Dixon said. “She’s become a force within the progressive side of the Florida Democratic Party. And I would suspect that it’s going to be a name that gets a little more national attention within the next year or two, especially going into the 2022 cycle where she’s expected to try to try to make some noise.”

For her part, Rayasam sees Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is widely expected to run and win reelection in 2022, as having some national potential. He has won both his governor’s races “by huge margins,” she notes. “He’s pretty popular here. There hasn’t been a Democrat that’s been able to really even touch or get close to him. And I think we’re going to see — I’m curious to see what he does with his popularity here in Texas, whether he translates that into national ambitions.”

Rodriguez closed the conversation with what may be the safest bet: Continued interest in shaping state politics, as the narrow balance of power at the national level raises the stakes everywhere. “Politics and money at the state level” is the long-term trend to watch, Rodriguez said. “I think there’s a recognition that to make inroads at the national level, you’ve got to look down the ballot.”

As progressive groups finish licking wounds from 2020, many will likely regroup for a new battle, Rodriguez said: “I think a lot of these organizations are going to try and do what they didn’t accomplish this year.”

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