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Redistricting Continues to Hurt Competition in State Legislatures

Partisan control of most chambers has stayed the same since 2010. Don’t look for many red or blue states to change their colors in the coming decade.

Goergia’s House chamber, without any people in it.
Georgia’s House chamber. The state’s GOP majority has effectively gerrymandered legislative seats, eroding competition for the foreseeable future.
The 2020 election cycle saw the lowest amount of turnover in legislative chambers since the 1940s. This year won’t be all that different.

Most states have finished redistricting their own legislatures. Unsurprisingly, partisan majorities drew maps everywhere they could that either favor or essentially guarantee extensions of their own power. As a result, the nation’s legislative map, which has been mostly static for the past decade, will continue to stay pretty much the same.

“I don’t think the battlefield has changed dramatically,” says Garrett Arwa, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s director of campaigns. “The legislative maps are not that different from what we looked at in 2020.”

The major theme in the current round of congressional redistricting has been reduction of competitive seats. An assessment released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that the number of congressional districts Donald Trump carried by 15 percentage points or more in 2020 will increase by nearly 30 percent, compared with the old maps, in GOP-controlled states.

“Our analysis for the state legislative chambers we have looked at shows a similar dynamic evolving — the shoring up of incumbent seats, with a decrease in the number of competitive districts,” says Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades maps on partisan fairness and other measures.

Currently, Republicans control 62 chambers, compared with 36 for Democrats, with an asterisk on Alaska, where the House is run by a coalition. One party or the other holds both chambers in nearly every state, with Minnesota and Virginia having the only legislatures under divided control.

The Minnesota House has been the nation’s most competitive chamber over the past decade, switching hands in 2012, 2014 and 2018. The divided Legislature is expected to miss the Feb. 15 deadline to draw new maps, punting the matter to the state supreme court.

In most states in recent years, partisan control has remained remarkably steady. Throughout the 20th century, an average of a dozen chambers changed hands during each election cycle. Only half that many flipped in 2016 and 2018. Then, in 2020, the New Hampshire House and Senate were the only chambers that switched, with Republicans taking control of both.

Legislative majorities have grown larger over the past decade, with barely any competitive seats left. In the most recent elections held in each legislative district since 2018, 85 percent were carried by double-digit margins, according to Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a legislative forecasting group.

It might be that unpredictable shifts in demographics and partisan coalitions will turn some of the new maps into “dummymanders” that backfire against the party that drew them. But it’s a better bet that respective majorities in both blue and red states will be largely impervious, regardless of any changes in the public mood.

Few States in Play

Last November, Republicans won control of the state House in Virginia, a state President Biden carried by 10 points just a year earlier. Their victory there — along with gaining seven seats in the even-bluer state of New Jersey — have them looking forward with glee to this year’s elections. “Even voters in traditionally blue states are fed up with the far-left turn the Democratic Party has taken, which should allow for plenty of offensive opportunities this year,” says Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Republicans need a net gain of only two seats to take control of the Nevada Senate, or three seats to retake the Colorado Senate. The four seats the GOP needs to take back the Minnesota House appear well within the party’s grasp.

“There are real questions around fragile Democratic majorities that need to be watched, as happened in Virginia last year,” says Gaby Goldstein, senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Sister District, which raises money for Democratic legislative candidates in competitive states. “Here, I’m thinking about Nevada, a state that worries me a lot.”

The combination of redistricting and a favorable GOP environment this year have taken some red states practically off the table. Democratic groups spent millions seeking control of the Texas House in 2020, but failed to gain any seats. This year, the new map puts it outside their reach.

“The Texas House is probably not a target for 2022,” says Arwa, of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “Republicans were very good at shoring up incumbents and taking competitive seats off the table.”

Democrats are well aware that the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections, leaving some of their chambers at risk. “A midterm cycle is typically tough for the party in power in Washington,” says Gabrielle Chew, vice president of communications for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. But she contends that the GOP’s “extreme and unpopular” legislation on issues such as abortion and voting rights will create chances for Democrats.

Arwa and other Democrats are hopeful that maps drawn by Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission will create chances in that state. “If these maps hold up against legal challenges, Democrats will finally have a shot at winning a majority in the chamber, which they have earned several times over the proceeding decade,” says Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for Daily Kos, an online forum that raises money for Democratic candidates.

In 2018, Democrats took more total votes for state House races not just in Michigan but North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as well, but they fell short of control in all of them. They’re hoping new maps might change the calculus in some of those states. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already said it will take a “least changes” approach to the current maps, but the North Carolina Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments Wednesday in a case challenging new maps as illegal partisan gerrymanders.

In most of the country, Republicans — who control more states — did not miss many chances to cement their majorities. It’s the GOP’s midterm tailwind that will make some states winnable for the party this year, Nuttycombe says, but it’s gerrymandering that takes others off the table for the foreseeable future.

“The Texas House will not even be competitive in 2024 because of gerrymandering in the Republicans’ favor,” he says. “In Georgia, gerrymandering there is the main thing that prevents it from being competitive in 2024.”

Not Quite as Cutthroat

Drawing legislative maps is not quite as cutthroat as congressional redistricting. With power in Washington so closely divided, every U.S. House seat is fought over as an enormous prize.

In Missouri, for example, Republican legislative majorities are divided about whether to draw a congressional map that might well give them seven of the state’s eight U.S. House seats, or be satisfied holding onto six Republican seats that would be safer. “The House has a razor-thin margin and every state thinks it can contribute to its party,” says Doug Spencer, a University of Colorado law professor who runs the All About Redistricting website.

When you have a 30-seat majority in your chamber, however, you don’t have to sweat each district so much. In South Dakota, new legislative maps were approved by a bipartisan coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats against the wishes of more conservative Republicans.

“We definitely have a divided Republican Party here in the state of South Dakota, especially in the House of Representatives,” says Jamie Smith, the state House Democratic leader. “Because they knew they needed our help to get anything passed, they wanted to make sure our concerns were addressed.”

The new maps did more than conservatives wanted in terms of keeping tribal areas and urban districts intact. Still, that doesn’t mean they’ll do all that much to alter the Legislature’s overwhelmingly Republican nature. Republicans control 90 percent of the seats in both chambers. “Out of the whole thing, we really only picked up one more majority-blue district,” Smith says.

The new map may offer South Dakota Democrats a fighting chance in a few additional districts but, as in other states, the gains made through redistricting a decade ago should last for at least a few more years, if not the entire decade.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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