Democrats Bank on Local Strategy to Help in Red States

BY Lee Banville  July 19, 2010 at 2:26 PM EDT

According to conventional wisdom, it is going to be a bad year for Democrats. Historically the party of the president has lost seats in the mid-term, ugly fights over health care and the soaring deficit have owned media headlines and Congressional approval rates are hanging in the low 20s — all point to a potentially rough fall.

What many Democrats are counting on to make it through November with their majority possibly intact is an effort former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean launched in the wake of the 2004 presidential campaign — the so-called “50-State Strategy.”

The 50-State Campaign

Dean, who had unsuccessfully run for president that year and earned the DNC chairmanship as a sort-of runner-up prize, argued that the party needed to rebuild its grassroots by becoming active and running campaigns in areas forfeited to the GOP in the past.

“Election by election, state by state, precinct by precinct, door by door, vote by vote… we are going to lift this party up and take this country back,” Dean said at the time.

The party threw new energy into state-based party building, including organizing precinct activists and committing to running candidates where they had traditionally not.

To find evidence of the Democrat’s efforts to establish more of a presence in all 50 states you can look at the number of Congressional candidates fielded by each party. In the last two election cycles, the Democrats have not run a candidate in only a handful of contests – 10 in 2006 and 15 in 2008.

Compare that with the Republican Party who ceded some four times as many races and you see a marked contrast between the two parties. In both 2006 and 2008, Republicans left 10 percent of all the races open to the Democratic candidate.

A closer look at where the Republicans didn’t run a candidate produces some predictable, and some surprising results. Many of the districts come from the Industrial Metropolis counties of America – Howard Berman’s district in Los Angeles County or William Lacy Clay’s district in St. Louis. Other districts where Republicans failed to mount any campaign often landed in Minority Central counties, such as John Lewis’ district in Georgia and Artur Davis’ district spreading from Birmingham, Ala.

But where things get a bit more interesting is looking at the districts that on the face of it should be more competitive. It is not too surprising to see the bulk of the state of Massachusetts without a GOP candidate for Congress, but what about Arkansas? This is a state primarily made up of Evangelical Epicenters and Boom Towns. It is also a state that gave John McCain a 20-point margin of victory in 2008, but three of the four congressional districts that year did not have a Republican on the ballot.

Although dramatically smaller than they once were, there are regions of the country where history and localism outweighs national politics. But despite these conservative Democrats’ past successes, Republicans see opportunity this year. Both Marion Berry in Arkansas’ 1st District and Vic Snyder in the 2nd are in close contests.

A Patchwork Strategy

That is not to say that 50-state Democratic push is succeeding across the board. In particular, it appears Democrats have decided to, indeed, not mess with Texas. They did not run in six of the 32 races in the state and it has been more than a decade since a Democrat has won a statewide campaign. And those six districts include nearly every type of community type in Patchwork Nation, so it seems for now, the Democrats have been unable to add Texas to their nationwide strategy.

Still Democrats have seen some success running in traditional GOP strongholds. A swath of the mountain west has elected Democrats in recent years — a fact that has added a dose of conservatism to the House caucus, including candidates in Arizona, Utah and Idaho.

Idaho’s Congressman Walt Minnick is one of those candidates who came up through a state where few Democrats have managed to win. He won election in 2008 in the same district where President Barack Obama garnered a measly 36 percent of the vote.

Minnick has been a true Blue Dog Democrat, voting against Obama’s health care bill, the stimulus funding and a raft of other traditional Democratic projects. Visit Minnick’s campaign site and you will find no mention of the Democratic Party (although you can see Congressman Minnick sporting a hunting rifle). Minnick’s chances this coming fall are not too bad, according to Beltway prognosticators and in many ways the first term Congressman is turning to traditional Republican backers like the Chamber of Commerce to aid his cause.

“Some folks in Walt’s position are accused of posturing on core fiscal issues, but the tea party endorsement gave us just a bit more credibility in the eyes of some,” Minnick spokesman John Foster told Politico last month when the Democrat earned the business organization’s backing. “It’s further proof that Walt’s not just talking about this stuff — he’s actually committed to doing the things that generated a record worthy of endorsement by the Chamber.”

Finding a Way

Minnick is following a fairly traditional trail blazed by Dixiecrats in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and more recently by Democrats throughout more rural Tractor Country districts in the Dakotas and parts of Missouri.

These are Democrats who are running and winning in staunchly conservative districts. They are doing it by appealing to voters’ independence — Minnick, for example, garnered the Tea Party endorsement in his district and just this weekend appeared at one of their rallies — and by only loosely tying themselves to the national party.

Districts vs. Counties

By looking at the Congressional campaigns in recent years, what emerges is a more complex amalgam of Patchwork Nation communities. Districts sprawl over many counties in more rural areas, often including many types of communities, or in urban districts that comprise a few dozen blocks of Manhattan. Looking at the county-level community types can only tell us so much.

To better see if the Democratic 50-state effort is working and to more systematically track Congressional campaigns and key debates, Patchwork Nation is launching a new phase of our project. In the coming weeks we will unveil a Congressional District effort that, like the counties before it, that will organize the nation’s 435 U.S. House districts into different types. We will then begin to analyze issues, campaigns and spending by these district types, adding an additional political layer to our ongoing dissection of America.

With so much riding on this fall’s mid-term election, better understanding the types of Congressional Districts that make up Patchwork Nation will allow us to take a closer look at what is happening in Idaho’s 1st district, and across America.