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'Not Exactly a Blowout': Democrats Score Modest Gains in State Legislatures

Democrats flipped six chambers, but Republicans still control nearly twice as many.

michigan legislature
In Michigan, some political watchers are discussing a possible Democratic takeover of the state legislature, thanks to the surging popularity of Gretchen Whitmer, the democratic candidate for governor.
At the end of what has been a miserable decade for them, Democrats began making a comeback at the legislative level. But their victories were nowhere near enough to challenge the GOP's dominance of most chambers.

Democrats flipped just six chambers. By contrast, Republicans took control of 21 chambers in 2010 during President Barack Obama's first midterm. The average number of chambers to flip per cycle is a dozen. 

Democrats on Tuesday took over the state Senates in Colorado and Maine, as well as both chambers in New Hampshire. They also achieved a working majority in the New York Senate, after years in which renegade members gave the GOP effective control. The sixth chamber to flip was the Minnesota House. (The Minnesota Senate was not up for grabs this year.)

That means Minnesota will have the only legislature under divided control in the entire country -- something that hasn't happened since 1914, according to Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Democrats also made inroads in some other states where Republicans held large majorities, including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas. But the GOP picked up additional seats in red states like Alabama, and as Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, puts it, "The Republican state legislative red firewall held strong in battleground states like Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."

Overall, assuming the GOP wins the Alaska House, it will control 62 chambers, compared to 37 for Democrats. 

Democrats made gains, but in a sense, they had nowhere to go but up. Republicans went into Tuesday's elections holding two-thirds of the nation's legislative chambers, with big majorities in many of them. Democrats mainly flipped chambers that were ripe for pickup. The party only needed to score a net gain of one seat apiece to take control of the state Senates in Colorado, Maine and New York.



A Two-Cycle Process for Democrats

Democrats hoped a strong performance by their gubernatorial candidates could lift their legislative hopefuls. But that didn't always happen.

Wisconsin Democrat Tony Evers appears to have unseated GOP Gov. Scott Walker, but Evers' performance was not strong enough to help his party win the two seats they needed to take control of the state Senate. Republicans didn't lose a single seat in the state Assembly, where their majority was never in doubt.

"It's looking like Republicans will gain one in the state Senate and easily keep the Assembly, but Democrats very well might sweep the statewide races," says Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University. "That's the power of gerrymandering."

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf enjoyed a big enough polling lead to have Democrats talking about flipping the House. He ended up winning by a healthy margin, and Democrats gained seats in both chambers, but even before the election, party officials acknowledged that winning back the Senate was going to be at least a two-cycle process.

That was a common refrain all over the country. In many states, Democrats knew they almost certainly couldn't erase GOP supermajorities in a single year. In North Carolina, Democrats simply set their sights on taking over enough seats to keep vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from being overriden -- something they did achieve.

But Republicans held their supermajorities in Ohio, while turning their majority in the Alabama House into a supermajority.

At least part of the Democrats' disadvantage has to do with redistricting, a process that Republicans dominated this decade, thanks to their control of so many states.

"The districts are not as favorable for Republicans as they were in the early 2010s, but they are still more favorable for them," says Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

He points to the example of Virginia. Last year, Democrats won 15 seats in the state House -- roughly double the amount that had been predicted even by the most optimistic members of the party. Yet that big haul was still one short of a tie and two short of taking the majority.

The fact that about two-dozen new groups formed during this cycle to help elect Democrats to state offices speaks to an increased level of activism in a party that for years concerned itself much more with federal races.  

"Even though Republicans have been much better at this in the past, they don't have a permanent hold on enthusiasm," says Ravi Gupta, managing partner of the Arena, which sought to elect legislative Democrats.

Having begun the process of rebuilding their numbers, Democrats hope 2020 offers them the chance to add substantially more to their gains at the legislative level.

"Democrats should declare success," says Storey, the NCSL official. "They won this election cycle. But it wasn't exactly a blowout."

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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