His Party Is at a Low Point, and Obama Seems Passive

From Congress to state capitals, the last six years have taken a huge toll on Democrats' fortunes.

It wasn't until the conclusion of his hour-long press conference Wednesday that President Obama allowed himself to get philosophical about the drubbing Democrats took in Tuesday's election. "Maybe I'm just getting older, I don't know," he said. "It doesn't make me mopey; it energizes me."

Well, you could have fooled the 200 reporters jammed into the East Room or the millions of Americans who watched on television. The president didn't seem energized at all and certainly wasn't very interested in analyzing the political cataclysm that now will color the remainder of his time in office. Instead, Obama was flat and unemotional in his mien, bloodless in his assessment of an election that claimed so many of his supporters, and passionless in his declaration of goals for the next two years. He even refused to come up with a word like "shellacking" (2010) or "thumping" (2006) to describe the slaughter. "Republicans had a good night" was as far as he would go.

It was a surprising performance for a president who had just suffered such an electoral wipeout, almost totally lacking in the anger of Harry S. Truman after the 1946 election, the determination of Bill Clinton after the 1994 election, or the contrition of George W. Bush after the voting in 2006. Instead, there was a passiveness and a resignation. And some recycled platitudes about the greatness of the country. Most striking was a reprise of the message he sent so inspiringly in the 2004 Democratic National Convention address that established his national reputation. "I continue to believe," he said Wednesday, "we are simply more than just a collection of red and blue states. We are the United States."

In one sense, of course, he is correct. After six years of his leadership of the Democratic Party, there aren't that many states colored Democratic blue on those maps maintained by the networks. Perhaps coming from the blood of so many candidates who lost because of their support for Obama, those maps are awfully red these days. It is now undeniable that no Democratic president in the last century has had as devastating an impact on his party as has Obama. When he took office in 2009, any political map of the United States was much more Democratic blue than Republican red. That was true across the board from the White House, to the Senate, the House, governorships, and state legislatures. Today, in the wake of Tuesday's defeats, all those maps are predominantly crimson.

The numbers are sobering for Democrats, demonstrating both how far the party has fallen and how difficult it will be to climb out of the current hole. Almost all the attention has been focused on the loss of the Senate. But the damage to the party is considerably deeper than the top of the ballot and considerably dispersed from Washington.

The numbers tell the story: In 2009, Democrats had 60 senators, when you include the two independents who caucused with them; in 2015, they will have 45. In 2009, Democrats had 256 members of the House; in 2015, they will have 192. In 2009, Democrats had 28 governors; in 2015, they will have 18. In 2009, Democrats controlled both legislative chambers in 27 states; in 2015, they will control only 11. In 2009, Democrats controlled 62 legislative chambers; in 2015, they will control only 28 (with one tie and two still undecided).

The impact of the carnage in state legislatures on Obama's watch is hard to overstate. This is where the future classes of mayors, governors, and members of Congress are bred. This is where the boundary lines are drawn for congressional and legislative districts. This is where party leaders come from. And this is where the rules are made for party primaries and election laws are set. According to Tim Storey at the National Conference of State Legislatures, what we saw on Tuesday was an almost unprecedented "Republican wave," which he said, leaves "Democrats at their lowest point in state legislatures in nearly a century."

Among the legislatures flipping to Republicans were the West Virginia House, Nevada Assembly and Senate, New Hampshire House, Minnesota House, New York Senate, Washington Senate, Colorado Senate, and New Mexico House. The West Virginia Senate went to a tie.

Also on the state level, Democrats in the Obama era have watched their constitutional officers fall to perilously low numbers in many key states. Ohio, the quintessential presidential-battleground state, is perhaps the best example. If national analysts wonder why Ohio Democrats could not put up a serious opponent to a less-than-popular Republican governor, they need look no further than the lack of any Democrat in any statewide office. When Obama took office in 2009, Democrats held the offices of Ohio attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state. In 2015, not a single statewide office will be held by a Democrat.

So color Democrats in Ohio more than a little "mopey" about the state of their party. There—and in the states where Democratic candidates were mowed down on Tuesday—they are seeing lots of red. And not all of it is on the maps.