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Republicans Hold Their Edge in State-Level Politics

Republicans scored a net gain of one governorship, adding to their lead. The GOP gave up little ground at the legislative level, with Democrats failing to flip nearly all their targeted chambers.

Republicans have dominated state politics for the past decade, holding a majority of governors and legislative chambers. In the first election of this decade, their success story continues.

As expected, all nine incumbent governors seeking reelection won their races, including six Republicans.

In Montana, GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte defeated Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. Gov. Steve Bullock was term-limited and ran for Senate. Montana had been held by Democrats for 16 years. Republicans now hold 27 governorships, compared to 23 for Democrats.

"Despite being outspent by the DGA and other Democratic groups, Republicans were able to win the governor's office for the first time in 20 years," Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement.

At the legislative level, Republicans went into Tuesday’s election with control of 59 legislative chambers. They have given up none of that territory thus far. In fact, they picked up both the House and Senate in New Hampshire.

Democrats fell short in their hope of taking control of legislative chambers in states such as Texas, Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina. They needed two seats to take the Minnesota Senate but appear not to have gotten them. Things are looking better for the Democrats in Arizona, but it’s clear that the overall change in the legislative map will be small.

“At the moment, continuity appears to be the headline,” says Mick Bullock, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Things could certainly change as we have many legislative chambers not called for.”

In some ways, this is not a surprise. Legislative majorities have gotten larger in recent years, leading to much less turnover of chambers over the past three cycles (2016, 2018 and this year) than had been the historic norm.

But for Democrats, it’s clearly a disappointing result. They’ve long complained that after the GOP’s historic sweep in 2010, Republicans created fortresses for themselves through gerrymandering.

Democrats will have little chance of undoing that advantage for the decade ahead.

A Good Year for Incumbents in the Crucible of the Coronovirus 

This was a good year for governors seeking reelection. The coronavirus pandemic had the political effect of putting campaigning on hold for much of the year, while also raising approval ratings for many governors.

The governors who won reelection are Republicans Phil Scott of Vermont; Chris Sununu of New Hampshire; Jim Justice of West Virginia; Doug Burgum of North Dakota; and Mike Parson of Missouri. Joining them with fresh terms are Democrats Roy Cooper of North Carolina; Jay Inslee of Washington (for a rare third term in the state) and John Carney of Delaware.

“Across the country, we've seen most governors from both parties earn strong approval ratings by proving themselves in the crucible of the coronavirus pandemic, just as many chief executives around the world have,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “Tonight, it appears that they are being rewarded.” 

Cooper’s success was emblematic of this year’s incumbency advantage. He won office four years ago by 0.2 percent. Both parties expected he would receive a tough challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

But Forest never found his footing in the race. Cooper’s approval rating went up thanks to his handling of the pandemic, and he enjoyed solid polling leads all year. In the end, Cooper was able to outpace other Democrats on the ticket in North Carolina, including presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham.

In Missouri, Parson was able to turn aside a challenge from state Auditor Nicole Galloway. Officials with both parties agreed that Galloway was a strong recruit for the Democrats.

She made health care her top issue, arguing she’d be the better choice to implement the Medicaid expansion approved by Missouri voters in August. She also criticized Parson, who was infected himself with COVID-19, for not taking a stricter approach. Missouri does not have a statewide mask mandate.

But Parson emphasized the state’s comparatively low unemployment rate and made support for law enforcement a central theme of his reelection bid. (Parson became governor in 2018, following the resignation of GOP Gov. Eric Greitens due to scandal.)

The state has turned increasingly red. Galloway was the last Democrat in statewide office.

“The governor’s steady, reasoned leadership prevailed,” says John Hancock, a former state party chair who runs a political action committee that backed Parson. “Missourians have endorsed Mike Parson’s common-sense conservatism.”

Limited Legislative Turnover

If it was a good year for incumbent governors, that was less true of legislative leaders.

Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello lost his seat in an upset against Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. Mattiello is a conservative Democrat who has often clashed with more progressive Democrats. During the September primary, progressives unseated four incumbent Democrats, including House Majority Leader John DeSimone.

In Vermont, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson's hopes of retaining her seat depend on a favorable recount. The Democrat finished third in a two-member district by 18 votes, running behind Republicans Leland Morgan and Michael Morgan, an uncle and his nephew.

“We hear it everywhere we go, and I don’t mean a little bit—a lot bit—that she’s lost touch with her constituents,” Michael Morgan told VTDigger. “She doesn’t answer phone calls, doesn’t answer emails … and just is a non-responsive politician at this point.”

The state Senate presidents of West Virginia, New Mexico and Alaska were all unseated in primaries this year.

Legislative results are typically slow to come in and it takes time to call chambers. Still, Democrats have already fallen short in some key states.

After winning a dozen seats in the Texas House in 2018, they hoped to pick up the nine additional seats they needed for control. Two years ago, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried nine state House districts held by Republicans, although he fell short statewide. Most Republican incumbents in targeted districts were leading early Wednesday, however, and the GOP flipped at least one Democratic seat.

"Unlike in 2018, when Texas Republicans were caught off guard, this time around they were ready," says Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. "They invested heavily in funding their candidates, both to retain their seats and to go on the offensive."

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, numerous groups sprung up aiming to help elect more Democratic legislators. They enjoyed some success in 2018, when the party took seven state chambers, as well as last year, when Democrats won majorities in both chambers in Virginia. But they largely failed this year.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder established the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which even in its name expressed the goal of winning control of more states in time for redistricting. It didn’t happen.

“State Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars to flip state chambers,” says David Abrams, deputy executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “So far, they don’t have a damn thing to show for it.”

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