In boasting about his tenure in the White House, President Barack Obama often cites numbers like these: 15 million new jobs, a 4.9 percent unemployment rate and 74 months of consecutive job growth.
There’s one number you will almost never hear: More than 1,030 seats.
That’s the number of spots in state legislatures, governor’s mansions and Congress lost by Democrats during Obama’s presidency.
It’s a statistic that reveals an unexpected twist of the Obama years: The leadership of the one-time community organizer and champion of ground-up politics was rough on the grassroots of his own party. When Obama exits the White House, he’ll leave behind a Democratic Party that languished in his shadow for years and is searching for itself.
“What’s happened on the ground is that voters have been punishing Democrats for eight solid years — it’s been exhausting,” said South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who lost two gubernatorial campaigns to Nikki Haley, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador to the U.N. “If I was talking about a local or state issue, voters would always lapse back into a national topic: Barack Obama.”
When Obama won the presidency, his election was heralded as a moment of Democratic dominance — the crashing of a conservative wave that had swept the country since the dawn of the Reagan era.
Democrats believed that the coalition of young, minority and female voters who swept Obama into the White House would usher in something new: an ascendant Democratic majority that would ensure party gains for decades to come.
The coalition, it turns out, was Obama’s alone.
After this year’s elections, Democrats hold the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in just five coastal states: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Republicans have the trifecta in 25, giving them control of a broad swath of the middle of the country.
The defeats have all but wiped out a generation of young Democrats, leaving the party with limited power in statehouses and a thin bench to challenge an ascendant GOP majority eager to undo many of the president’s policies. To be sure, the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections. But, say experts, Obama’s tenure has marked the greatest number of losses under any president in decades.
“Obama just figured his important actions on policies like immigration and health care would solidify support, but that hasn’t really materialized,” said Daniel Galvin, a political science professor at Northwestern University and the author of a book on presidential party building. “He’s done basically the minimal amount of party building, and it’s been insufficient to help the party.”