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Parties Fight for Legislative Control Ahead of Redistricting

Democrats are playing offense, looking at recapturing chambers in states where Biden has a good chance of winning. There aren't enough opportunities, however, for them to erase the GOP's national advantage.

Texas lawmakers will face major challenges in funding state priorities next session
Democrats have talked about turning Texas blue for so long that it’s become the political equivalent of the boy crying wolf. Still, with the presidential and U.S. Senate races tightening there, even Republicans are talking seriously about Democrats making real inroads this year.

“The Democrats absolutely have a path at winning at the state House level,” said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “When you look at the districts that are in play, the seats in suburban Dallas and Fort Worth and Houston, the Texas House is in play.”

Around the country this year, Republicans are playing defense at the legislative level. That’s been the case throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, a period in which Democrats have won control of 10 chambers. It’s also a consequence of the GOP’s past success, with the party still reaping benefits from its historic gains in 2010 and 2014.

Despite their recent losses, Republicans still control the legislature in 30 states. “In many ways, Republicans are victims of our own success, because Republicans have completely dominated over the last decade,” Chambers said. “Democrats could do nothing and still pick up seats.”

Currently, the legislative map is almost a perfect mirror of the 2016 Electoral College. Republicans control the legislature in every Trump state, while Democrats hold every state carried by Hillary Clinton, with the exception of the Minnesota Senate. Two years ago, Democrats picked up 19 seats in the Minnesota House, but the Senate wasn’t up. Democrats now need to gain just two seats to take the chamber.


Legislative control ahead of the 2020 elections. (Governing)

 “The lowest hanging fruit is the Minnesota Senate,” said Gaby Goldstein, political director of Sister District Project, which supports Democratic legislative candidates. “If we don’t flip the Minnesota Senate, we’re not flipping anything in this country.”

If the Minnesota Senate is the most likely chamber to flip, others present more difficult challenges. Aside from the Minnesota Senate, every Democratic opportunity this year is in a Trump 2016 state that Joe Biden has a greater or lesser chance of taking back. The party’s top targets are the state houses in Iowa and Michigan and the two chambers in Arizona. 

After winning 10 seats in the Pennsylvania House in 2018, Democrats still need nine more for a majority. A new map gives them an outside shot at taking either chamber in North Carolina. And then there are states that remain a reach for them at both the presidential and state House levels: Georgia and Texas.

“Democrats have been hyping for years that Georgia is a purple state,” Chambers said. “That’s no longer hype, that’s truth.”

Even if a big blue wave carries Democrats to victory in all those states, it would still represent relatively little turnover in legislative control, by historic standards. Legislators in a total of 35 states will be responsible for drawing lines in the next round of redistricting, but in some of the states where Democrats have their best opportunities to regain control, including Arizona, Iowa and Michigan, redistricting is now handled by independent commissions.

That’s going to help keep the GOP’s “red wall” intact. In 2018, even as Democratic candidates took more votes statewide, the party fell short of control in the state houses of Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, thanks in large part to the GOP’s successful redistricting efforts a decade ago.

“Our candidates were shellacked in 2010,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee backing Democratic women who support abortion rights. “Republicans entrenched their power for the next decade.”

Less Turnover in Legislatures

Historically, a dozen chambers have changed hands each cycle. In both 2016 and 2018, only about half that number of chambers flipped each time. Rather than changing majorities, the trend over the past decade has been the dominant party increasing its majorities.

That’s likely to continue this year. Republicans appear set to gain yet more seats in states such as Kentucky and Oklahoma, while Democrats look to add to their advantages in Colorado and Connecticut. “Democrats will have a net gain in legislative seats – that’s pretty much cooked,” said Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a political forecaster. “I don’t think it will get to 2018 levels, when Democrats picked up a lot of their opportunities.”

In 2018, Democrats picked up 325 seats nationwide, largely in suburbs. But historically, the president’s party has averaged losses of 425 seats during midterm elections.

Nuttycombe predicts Democrats will continue to make gains in suburbs, while Republicans further solidify their lock on rural areas. “There is more of a suburban slide this year than Republican pickup opportunities this year,” he said. “The suburban slide for Republicans is almost universal – Delaware, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas. It’s just all over the place.”

With relatively few chambers in play, both parties are hoping, if they can't win control, then at least to deprive the other side of a supermajority. For Democrats, that list includes chambers in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri, while Republicans have to worry about Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Oregon. Currently, half the nation’s chambers are under supermajority control (30 Republican, 20 Democratic).

In the Alaska House, Republicans hold a majority on paper, but the chamber has been run by a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents. They caught a break earlier this month in their quest for true control, when two GOP coalition members said they'll caucus with the party next year. Two others lost in primaries.

Top of the Ticket Effects

Most legislative districts aren’t competitive. This year, as is typical, more than a third of seats have been left uncontested by one of the major parties. 

Voting almost everywhere is nationalized. A survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center showed that only 4 percent of voters intend to split their votes between presidential and House or Senate candidates. 

There are few districts left where voters have supported one party for president and the other in legislative contests. Presidential approval ratings matter more to legislative elections than voters’ assessments of their own legislature, said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University. 

He notes, however, that how a governor performs can also have an effect on other state races. That could end up being important this year, with people paying more attention to governors, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. “What people think about Trump comes first, but we’ve never had a situation where governors have had this much impact or attention at a nationwide level,” Rogers said.

In most years, legislative candidates try to make names for themselves by being omnipresent in their districts: appearing at every civic function and spending a good deal of their waking hours knocking on voters’ doors. Such activity has been curtailed, although generally speaking Republican candidates have resumed in-person campaigning to a greater extent than Democrats.

Candidates from both parties are campaigning virtually, holding Zoom town halls, fundraisers and phone bank parties. It’s easier to get more people to attend online, but it’s harder to reach less engaged citizens who might normally be encountered casually at county fairs or outside grocery stores.

Democratic groups are now seeking to highlight the importance of legislative elections by characterizing states as the last line of defense for progressive causes such as voting rights, abortion and health care.

“State legislatures have an outsized impact on most Americans’ day-to-day lives, especially as we’re facing the potential, or the reality, of a conservative Supreme Court for decades,” said Christina Polizzi, national press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.


So, Can Democrats Win Texas?

Democrats have sometimes devoted less attention to state politics than Republicans, certainly during Barack Obama’s presidency. Having paid a heavy price in 2010 – and being shut out of power in Washington following Trump’s election in 2016 – they’ve sought to build up more of an infrastructure for state races.

That includes the creation of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as numerous other groups including Sister District. Republicans are now fond of complaining that outside groups are pouring money into state races, as happened last year with the Democratic takeover of the Virginia Legislature.

Yet Democratic donors remain largely focused on federal races, sending enormous sums not just to Biden but U.S. Senate candidates. The Republican State Leadership Committee continues to raise more money than the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“Our Republican counterparts are going to do absolutely everything that they can to hold onto those states across the Sunbelt that are going to gain congressional seats for redistricting,” Polizzi said.

The Texas House is the RSLC’s top priority this year. “Unlike 2018, Republicans are taking this seriously and putting in serious money,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. 

Jones suggests that Democrats would have to catch every break to win the majority. “I can identify a half-dozen Republican seats that wouldn't surprise me if Democrats won,” Jones said. “But that gets them to 73,” out of 76 needed for a majority. “At the same time, they have maybe three seats where their candidates are in real fights.”

The Texas map is now nine years old. Populations have shifted in the fast-growing state, while the major metropolitan areas have grown much more blue. Harris County, which includes Houston, was traditionally the most-competitive major county in the country – Obama carried it by 971 votes, or .08 percent, in 2012 – but Clinton prevailed by 12 percentage points in 2016. 

In Dallas County, Republicans stretched their votes thin to gain more seats, which makes them vulnerable now. If Republicans can hold their House majority in November, by however slender a margin, they can draw themselves a new map that will be easier to defend.

“From a Republican perspective,” Jones said, “they just have to get to 2021.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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