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Democrats Push For Down-Ballot Votes As Clinton Holds Steady In Key States


As Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls over Donald Trump widens, Democrats are turning their attention to down-ballot races. Led by President Obama, they're trying to get her the biggest possible backup team of Democrats in the House, the Senate, governors' mansions and state legislatures around the country. NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama is campaigning his heart out for Hillary Clinton because he knows his legacy is on the line, and he's been telling voters that electing a Democratic president is not enough because, he says, presidents can't get stuff done on their own.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So we can't elect Hillary and then saddle her with a Congress that is do-nothing, won't even try to do something, won't even get their own stuff passed, much less the stuff you want passed, who all they got to offer is blocking and obstructing every step of the way. We got to have a Congress that's willing to make progress on the issues Americans care about.

LIASSON: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says electing down-ballot Democrats is now the president's top priority.

JOSH EARNEST: President Obama has already appeared in a wide range of television ads that will be airing across the country over the next couple of weeks not just for Secretary Clinton but for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate but also even some Democrats at the state level as well.

LIASSON: Democrats have tried and failed to win down-ballot races, particularly in midterm elections, but they've never paid the kind of meticulous attention that Republicans have devoted to down-ballot campaigns. Republicans are famous for leaving no GOP candidate behind, whether the races for governor or dog catcher - Democrats not so much. Mo Elleithee is a former DNC spokesman.

MO ELLEITHEE: Democrats just have not played that game as well as Republicans have. Part of that is resources. The Republicans have more money that they pump into those races. And just the lack of focus on these races has been part of the problem.

LIASSON: This lack of focus has led to disastrous results for the Democrats. Despite his track record winning the White House, President Obama has presided over bigger losses for his party down ballot than any other American president. The massive Republican congressional victories in 2010 and 2014 left Democrats holding fewer elected offices around the country than at any time since the 1920s.

And because the Republicans' big waves crested just at the right time, Republican governors and state legislatures were able to control the redrawing of legislative district boundaries after the 2010 census, and they created lots of safe seats for Republicans.

Many Democrats blame President Obama for ignoring down-ballot races, but Congressman Steve Israel, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

STEVE ISRAEL: I would not put this on President Obama. I would put this on all Democrats, quite honestly, including me. We got burned in 2010 by Republican strategy of focusing on local state legislatures. They seized control of the redistricting maps. They built themselves a 10-year firewall. The next redistricting isn't until 2022. So I would argue that, yes, we took our eye off the ball. We did lose nearly 1,000 local elections.

LIASSON: Yes, you heard that right - 1,000 Democratic seats lost since 2010. The hard lesson Democrats learned, says Israel, is you can't succeed by just winning at the top.

ISRAEL: You can only succeed politically by winning across the board. That's what the Republicans did. That's why even in an election like this one where Donald Trump is behind by double digits, Republicans are still holding their own in many congressional districts that were gerrymandered to protect them against every contingency. We have to stop that from happening, and I - and you can do it by taking a page out of their own playbook.

LIASSON: Even Republicans admit Donald Trump is a drag on down-ballot GOP candidates, so between now and November 8, the Democrats will be trying to take full advantage of that. But President Obama has promised to keep on helping down-ballot Democrats after the election.

The president is planning to work with a new group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder. The group will work to rebuild the Democratic farm team, trying to get Democrats elected to local and state offices so they can control how congressional district lines are drawn after the next census in 2020. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.