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The States Where Democrats Are Stuck

So far this year in Michigan, Democrats have done practically nothing. Also, let's not call it the Texas GOP Civil War and the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 10 Republican senators are not eligible to run this year.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s legislative agenda is on hold since her party has temporarily lost its House majority.
Jacob Hamilton/TNS
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The States Where Democrats Are Stuck: Last year, Democrats controlled all the political branches in Michigan for the first time in 40 years. They did not squander the opportunity. They repealed one Republican law that made Michigan a right-to-work state and another that ended prevailing wage requirements, while also passing fresh bills to protect abortion rights, promote clean energy, expand voting rights and increase protections for LGBTQ residents. “We’ve had a successful start to our legislative session,” says Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate. “We’ve been able to move a lot of important and timely bills.”

So far this year, however, Democrats have done practically nothing. The Michigan House has barely met, holding few committee meetings, let alone floor votes. The reason is simple. Last fall, two state House Democrats won mayoral elections. That was great for them, but bad for the caucus. Their absence has left the chamber in a partisan deadlock. “The 54-54 tie between Democrats and Republicans has ground the House to a halt,” says Zach Gorchow, editor and publisher of Gongwer Michigan, a political news and legislative tracking service.

The story is similar in Pennsylvania, where a resignation in December deprived state House Democrats of their majority. This happened repeatedly last year. Democrats won a single-seat majority back in 2022, but a death and a series of resignations have cost them that majority several times. They keep winning it back in special elections – they’ve got a good chance to win the special election being held next Tuesday – but they’ve been deprived of real power for repeated and extended stretches. This year, they haven’t been bothering to meet at all, pending their expected return to power.

Even assuming they regain their majority, Democrats in Pennsylvania will be limited in their ambitions by the fact that the GOP controls the state Senate. Things should be different in Michigan, where the Senate is also Democratic, but the party will be out of power in the House there for a longer period. The special elections that should restore their majority won’t take place until April. “I’m confident we will get that [majority] back,” Speaker Tate says. “I want to look for bipartisan opportunities, but if we can’t get cooperation for the time being, we know that’s for a short time, until those seats can be filled.”

Michigan Republicans are calling for a power-sharing arrangement. After all, they currently hold as many seats as Democrats. House rules, however, don’t require a new vote for speaker unless the 110-seat chamber is a straight-up tie at 55 seats each, not 54-54 as things now stand due to the two vacancies. So, rather than either party controlling the chamber, representatives will most likely be sitting on their hands. “With each passing day,” Gorchow says, “it becomes more likely that little to no activity will occur in the Michigan House until after the April 16 special elections.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants to take out legislators who opposed him on school vouchers.
Let’s Not Call It the Texas GOP Civil War: In 2022, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds failed to convince the Legislature to pass a relatively modest private school choice bill. She soon got her way, helping to unseat several GOP legislators in primaries that year, including the chair of the House education committee. Her opponents vanquished, last year Reynolds had the pleasure of signing a much more ambitious school choice bill almost as soon as the legislative session began.

This is the political trick that Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, hopes to copy. He has endorsed numerous challengers in the March 5 GOP primaries, targeting more than a dozen incumbents who helped sink a school voucher bill that was one of Abbott’s top priorities in 2023. Abbott is unleashing part of his $38 million campaign treasury, which was recently bulked up by a $6 million donation from Jeff Yass, a Republican megadonor and voucher proponent from Pennsylvania.

Abbott isn’t the only Texas Republican looking to take out members of his own party. You may recall that state Attorney General Ken Paxton was impeached by the state House last year due to allegations of bribery and abuse of his office. Paxton certainly remembers. Paxton, who was acquitted by the state Senate, has gone on a “revenge tour,” trying to take out roughly three dozen House Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment.

The state is seeing more contested primaries than it has for years – 59 in total, including 45 races involving incumbents under threat. “There are more challengers to more incumbents this time,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “In some cases, there are multiple challengers, which creates more uncertainty for incumbents trying to avoid a runoff.”

All that being said, Henson isn’t convinced there will be wholesale turnover within the House GOP ranks. For one thing, Abbott and Paxton are working at cross-purposes in many races, with the two men supporting opposing candidates in nearly 30 primaries. For another, it’s not clear that voters will automatically take their side and vote the local bums out.

“For all the Abbott and Paxton hostility being expressed in primaries, that doesn’t change the fact that if you’re a Republican incumbent in a primary, you have a lot to campaign on,” Henson said. “The Legislature delivered on the most significant property tax reduction in memory. Also, there’s lots of money and rhetoric being poured toward the border and immigration. Nothing interests Republicans and unifies them like issues around border security and immigration.”

A poll released Tuesday by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found that 60 percent of Republican primary voters say they’re less likely to vote for a representative who opposed vouchers last year. An even higher percentage, 64 percent, said they would be more likely to vote for candidates endorsed by Abbott. (Paxton holds less sway, making only 40 percent of primary voters more likely to support his endorsed candidates. But 46 percent said they’d be less likely to support representatives who voted for his impeachment.)

Still, Abbott’s track record at taking out incumbents in primaries hasn’t been great. Just last week, Jill Dutton won a special election for a state House seat in which her opponent was endorsed not only by Abbott and Paxton, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as well. The race was close, but the Austin lobby had Dutton’s back. The same will be true in other contests, as well.

It can be a mistake to read too much into a special election, especially one where turnout was lower than it will be on March 5. Still, it’s a sign that while Republican voters may be divided, they’re not always going to line up against incumbents who will claim to be staunch conservatives and have the votes on tax cuts and other issues to prove it.

Given the high-profile endorsements and the amount of money sloshing around Texas primaries this year – and the sheer number of incumbents being challenged – turnover still might be higher than normal, Henson says. That might be more the result of underlying incumbent weakness than voters following marching orders from above. “Is the sign of trouble that you cross the governor or crossed Paxton,” Henson asks, “or is it that you haven’t established yourself in your district because you’re a freshman or a sophomore?”

oregon state sen. suzanne weber
State Sen. Suzanne Weber is among the 10 Oregon Senate Republicans barred from seeking reelection for participating in a six-week walkout last spring.
Beth Nakamura/TNS
When Showing Up Matters: There’s guaranteed to be substantial turnover in the Oregon Senate this year. Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 10 Republican senators – a third of the total membership in the chamber – are not eligible to run this year.

The back story is that Senate Republicans have repeatedly torpedoed the plans of majority Democrats to pass major legislation in recent years, refusing to show up and thus depriving the body of a quorum. Expressing frustration but hoping for revenge, Oregon Democrats put a measure before voters to bar any senator with more than 10 unexcused absences from being able to run for re-election. It passed with more than a two-thirds majority.

Despite the warning, Republican senators staged a 42-day walkout last year. When the case reached the state Supreme Court, the GOP argued that the measure’s plain language meant they shouldn’t be ruled ineligible until 2028. The court unanimously decided that voters meant the punishment to be available as soon as possible …

Wisconsin’s supreme court has also agreed to wade into a partisan dispute. Last week, justices decided to hear a lawsuit brought by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who complains that the GOP Legislature’s failure to approve funding for conservation programs is not just a policy decision but in fact an unconstitutional dereliction of duty.

Liberals won a majority on the court last year, which has already resulted in a redistricting decision favorable to Democrats. “When the majority’s political allies say jump, the new majority responds: ‘How high?’” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in dissent in the Evers case …

For decades, West Virginia was run by Democrats. Those days are well and truly over. Democrats currently hold only 11 of the 100 seats in the state House. That number looks certain to dwindle even further this year, with just eight Democratic incumbents filing to run again. In the state Senate, Democrats may come out of the elections holding only a single seat, according to Chaz Nuttycombe, director of the forecasting firm CNalysis.

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