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Democrats’ Decade-Long Struggle in Legislatures Will Continue

Republicans have controlled nearly two-thirds of state legislative chambers ever since 2010. Democrats have little chance of breaking that stranglehold in this year’s elections.

A full legislative chamber.
Republican control of state legislatures continues to endure. The party’s historic victories in 2010 have given it an advantage, thanks to a combination of gerrymandering, incumbency and the nationwide decline in ticket-splitting. (David Kidd/Governing)
Republicans took control of the Wisconsin Assembly in 2010. That put them in position to draw a new map for the decade that turned out to be remarkably durable. It was challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but even after this decade’s revision it remains more or less intact.

Despite the fact that Joe Biden carried Wisconsin in 2020 and this year’s governor’s race is a tossup, Republicans control 61 of the Assembly’s 99 seats. They’re considered more likely to gain a supermajority next week than give up any ground.

The GOP’s continued dominance in Wisconsin reflects what’s the broader picture nationally. The party’s historic victories in 2010 have given it an enduring advantage, thanks to a combination of gerrymandering, incumbency and the nationwide decline in ticket-splitting. “We lost 20 state legislative chambers in one night in 2010 and we’re still working to regain them,” says Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The legislative map remains almost frozen in time. Despite this being the first election following redistricting — traditionally a time of considerable turnover — few chambers are even conceivably in play next week. There aren’t full slates of candidates running, with more than 40 percent of all seats going uncontested by one of the major parties. And voters don’t seem to care, in many cases not bothering to cast votes for state House or Senate offices.

“We’re in this World War I-style trench warfare between the two parties,” says Tim Storey, CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They’re both entrenched into their own territories and they’re spending massive resources, gaining a few yards each cycle.”

The president’s party nearly always loses legislative seats in midterm elections. Republicans will pick up some seats, but it will take a good-sized wave for them to take control of more than a chamber or two. The GOP already controls 62 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers. “Republicans are victims of our own success in state legislative races,” says Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Last year, Republicans won control of the Virginia House, so just breaking even would represent a good night for the party, Romeo says, because it would represent the GOP’s first net gain in a two-year election cycle since 2013-14. “A really good night would be if we get a wave and get some of these chambers,” he says, “but that’s not the expectation we’re going into the night with.”

For decades, an average of 12 legislative chambers changed hands during every two-year election cycle. Turnover has slowed to a trickle, however. In 2020, big-money Democratic efforts to win legislatures ahead of this decade’s redistricting came to nothing. They failed to win a single chamber that year. Only the New Hampshire House and Senate flipped to Republicans in 2020, representing the least amount of change in party control in decades.

There’s been very little change in partisan control for years now. Majorities are larger than they were a decade ago and have mostly been cemented in place by the latest round of redistricting.

Democrats can’t seem to make much headway, while Republicans, having won a ton in 2010 and 2014, have few new worlds left to conquer.

More Red States Than Blue

Heading into the 2020 election, the legislative map reflected the Electoral College map almost perfectly. Republicans controlled the legislature in every state that Donald Trump had carried in 2016, while Democrats had the legislature in every state Hillary Clinton carried, except Minnesota, then the only legislature under divided control.

The match is a bit less perfect now, because Biden won five states with GOP legislatures — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Michigan Senate represents arguably the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity this year, thanks to a map drawn by an independent redistricting commission, and they may gain seats in Pennsylvania, thanks to a more favorable map ordered by the state Supreme Court.

Two years ago, Democrats targeted about a dozen states. Outside groups such as the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and The States Project spent tens of millions of dollars trying to take control in more places ahead of redistricting, but they came up empty. “The state legislative chambers in Texas and Georgia might have been maybe at least a little competitive, but Republicans gerrymandered both of them to hell, and so neither of them are competitive this year,” says Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, an independent legislative forecasting group.

Democrats need only two seats to take control of the Minnesota Senate, but it may remain elusive, as it did in 2020. As in the rest of the country, the Democratic vote in Minnesota is heavily concentrated in cities, dense suburbs and college towns, leaving the GOP with more terrain that’s favorable, even though the party hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006. Next week, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is lightly favored to win re-election.

“The GOP’s efficient distribution of votes in exurbs and Greater Minnesota gives them an advantage in legislative races,” says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “As we approach Election Day, I’m expecting the status quo — Walz, a DFL House and GOP Senate — but I would not be surprised by a GOP Legislature and Walz.”

Not Bothering to Vote

There are a lot of races around the country where voters won’t have a choice at all. This year, only 58 percent of the 6,279 legislative contests feature candidates from both major parties. That means that Republicans are already guaranteed to win 1,570 seats, while Democrats will win 1,049, according to Ballotpedia. More importantly, lack of competition means that majority control of 23 chambers was decided before anyone could cast a vote, including 13 Republican supermajorities in nine different states.

The percentage of legislative districts where one party carried at least 60 percent of the vote has risen dramatically since 2000, according to Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University. Two-thirds of all districts are now that lopsided. Unsurprisingly, the number of challengers willing to compete has declined dramatically in these basically hopeless districts. “I do think the polarization and nationalization of politics that we’ve seen have greatly changed how state elections have been run, and the results,” says Michael Sargeant, a Democratic consultant.

Like a number of other Democrats who work in state races, Sargeant laments that his party seems to pay way more attention to national politics than state races. Post, the DLCC president, notes that her organization was able to raise a total of $52 million in 2020, while Amy McGrath — one of a number of Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate who raised tons of money on their way to losing that year — collected $96 million.

If Democratic donors are far more tuned into federal races than state contests, Democratic voters have also demonstrated disinterest. They’re far more likely than Republicans to roll off — that is, not bother voting in down-ballot contests. Between 2012 and 2020, in 10 major battleground states, Democrats down ballot received fewer votes than the tops of their ticket (president, governor or U.S. Senate) a whopping 93 percent of the time, compared to 75 percent among Republicans. Counting just competitive contests, Democrats saw roll-off 79 percent of the time, compared to just 37 percent for Republicans, according to an analysis by Sister District, which supports Democratic legislative candidates.

Republicans, conversely, are more likely to vote in down-ballot races even when they skip the top races. Let’s return to the Minnesota Senate, one of the few remaining competitive chambers. In 2020, Democratic candidates for the Minnesota Senate received 110,000 fewer votes than Biden statewide, according to Sister District, while Republican candidates received 42,000 more votes than Trump. In the two districts that determined the majority, more voters sat out the state Senate races than the total winning margin in those contests.

Few Places in Play

Nuttycombe predicts that Republicans are on track to score a net gain of about 200 seats nationwide. That would be half the number of seats to change hands at the legislative level in an average year — and a shift of only 3 percent among the more than 6,200 seats up for grabs. “The turnover of legislators is going to be way up, but not partisan turnover,” says Storey, the NCSL chieftain. “The big takeaway is the status quo.”

Republicans are hoping that the party’s momentum heading into Election Day might carry them into majorities in Maine, Nevada or Oregon. They’re paying perhaps as much attention to the possibility of winning veto-proof supermajorities in North Carolina and Wisconsin. “The good news for us is that we’ve had a strategy that has stretched the map a little bit and put Democrats on defense in some states,” says Romeo, the RSLC spokesman. “We’ve spent money in places like Oregon and Nevada, where if there’s a wave we can capitalize.”

Aside from the state senates in Michigan and Minnesota, Democrats are hoping abortion gives them a chance at swinging the always volatile chambers in New Hampshire, but gerrymandering has solidified GOP control there. Democrats also hope to chip away at GOP majorities in places like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. But they acknowledge they have to worry about defense in some of the states on Romeo’s list. “I’m worried about the Legislature in Nevada,” says Gaby Goldstein, cofounder of Sister District. “I think it could be this year’s Virginia, a state where it’s taken for granted that the Democrats will continue to control the legislature.”

Goldstein calls it a “big accomplishment” that Democrats look to be as competitive as they are, given the usual midterm headwinds. She points to some polls suggesting that enthusiasm about voting appears to be roughly as high among Democrats as among Republicans. “We were always going to be underdogs this year,” she says. “Historically, the president’s party would be set for significant losses.”

But Democrats concede that they’re not going to be able to gain ground this year. They have to hope that they can erode the GOP’s dominance of state legislatures — now a dozen years old — over the course of the coming years, just not this year.

“The map may seem stable right now,” says Post, the DLCC president. “I don’t think it will be stable for the coming decade.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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