Democrats have found a clever new way to gain power

It’s hard to believe that a man who was just a state senator from Illinois only 14 years ago is now a two-term ex-president of the United States.

State legislatures have long been a key source of talent for both parties, but even with Barack Obama’s incredible climb, the Democrats seemed to forget this fact.

Their heavy focus during the heady years of Obama progressivism lured them away from the very building blocks a healthy party needs to grow and serve.

Now the Dems are on a mission to change all that and gain as many state legislative seats as possible — not just because they desperately need future leaders, but also because state officials can redraw congressional district maps for the US House of Representatives.

Emily Skopov is one such Democratic hopeful. A first-time candidate, she’s not just running for any old state House seat. She wants the red-suburban Pittsburgh seat held by Mike Turzai — the powerful Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania house.

The odds are a long shot, but Skopov is among hundreds of Democrats trying to upend their party’s 10-year march into obscurity in state elections.

Skopov, 51, a screenwriter best known for her work on “Xena Warrior Princess,” wants to change the culture in governing. “I really would just like to restore that sense of having real representation in government, where you really believe that your local representative is there for you . . . is there accessible to you,” she said.

After the November 2016 election results, Democrats had reached their weakest point of representation in state chambers across the US ever, losing control of state legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota and Kentucky and holding majorities in just 31 of the country’s 98 legislative bodies.

Their descent began when they took their eye off the ball and turned toward national politics.

“We focused too much on progressive ideology and economic stuff did not seem as important in what we said to voters,” admitted Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist. “A lot of voters felt alienated because of that. We were turning off the voters from the kinds of things that we had always been good at doing.”

With candidates like Skopov, who Mikus worked with earlier this year, the focus is back on what it should be: “The district, the people and not national politics. It really is as simple as that. These seats are held by your neighbors and local business people. They are the local elected official who is most like you, who may have the most impact in your lives, cares about the same things you do and who you will also be most likely to run into at the grocery store.”

Mikus groans as he remembers election night in 2014 when he watched Pennsylvania Republicans pick up eight state-house seats, defeating three incumbents and winning five open seats that had long been held by Democrats, giving the GOP a 119 majority over the Dems’ 84 seats.

Each cycle was a death by a thousand cuts. Mikus said it will take a few more cycles to correct and retake their losses, but Democrats have already showed they are clawing their way back. “State politics matters and we are now picking good candidates to challenge Republicans in our own back yards on issues that impact their daily lives — like education, like that bridge that needs repaired, like attracting new companies to the states to create new opportunities.”

The change started to take root last November in Virginia, which votes blue for national representatives in the US Senate and White House but is very red down-ballot on the state level, where Republicans have controlled the House of Delegates for 20 years. The first thing Democrats did was run twice as many candidates as they did in 2015 — 54 for 66 seats. They won 16, igniting a trend that has led to 44 Democrats flipping Republican seats across the country since Trump took office.

But Republicans are not sitting on their hands. They understand the importance of a solid, young bench, too. They also know that in states like Pennsylvania — as well as Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin — having your party in the majority means you can have a major impact in redrawing voting maps after the 2020 Census.

“Oh, we are very aware they are coming for these seats,” said Jordan Young, who has worked on state legislative races for Republicans in Tennessee for a nearly a decade. Less than 10 years ago, the Republican Party took its first majority in Tennessee’s House of Representatives since the Reconstruction.

That was a long time in the wilderness, and the Republicans don’t plan to go back anytime soon. Young has his eyes on three races, in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, that he knows the Democrats are gunning for.

Winning back state house and senate seats is the most measurable sign of whether the Democrats can emerge from the desert and reconnect with voters at the most basic, local level.

The truth is Obama was not a party builder; he was a Barack Obama builder. He shrunk his party with his policies while personally remaining popular. Now Donald Trump and the Republicans have a challenge: Do they fall into the same trap that Obama did and make it all about the president and his legacy? Or do they expand the party’s universe — or at least not let it shrink the way the Dems did under Obama’s watch?

They don’t get much media attention, but the real races to watch this November may be the local ones. They will tell us a lot more about who voters place their trust in for their future — and which party has the most promise going forward.