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All or Nothing: How State Politics Became a Winner-Take-All World

In practically every state, one party now holds all the legislative power. And once they get it, they’re keeping it.
by | January 2019

When the 21st century began, no legislative chamber in the country was more volatile than the Indiana House. Control switched between Republicans and Democrats no fewer than six times between 1990 and 2010. During the 1989-1990 session, the chamber was tied, leading to the practice of having a “speaker du jour,” with party control effectively changing hands on a daily basis.

The idea of a Democratic majority in Indiana is a dim memory at this point. Republicans took over the House in 2010 and haven’t looked back since. Although they gave up three seats in November, they still hold two-thirds of the chamber. As in many other states, Democrats have been wiped out in rural counties. There’s only one Democrat left in the Indiana House who holds a rural seat. In the southwestern section of the state -- once such a competitive region that the congressional district was known for decades as the “bloody 8th” -- a Democrat represents downtown Evansville but Republicans control everything else. “It’s dramatic supermajorities in both chambers,” says Robert Dion, a University of Evansville political scientist. “The minority party is teetering on irrelevance.”

What makes the Indiana example important is that it’s not an exception. Instead, such circumstances have become common. All over the country, chambers that once were up for grabs are now firmly controlled by one party holding what resembles an open-ended lease. There are exceptions, but in most states, either Democrats or Republicans have held power for years and are unlikely to give it up anytime soon. “There are only two split legislatures in the entire country -- Congress and Minnesota,” says Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Everyone else lives in a state that is either red or blue.”

 


(SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures)

 

Look at Indiana’s neighbors. Republicans have been out of power in the Illinois House since 1996. The question during election years isn’t whether Democrats will win, but whether they’ll win big enough to hold a supermajority. Ohio, long considered a bellwether state in presidential voting, has become solidly red at the legislative level, with Republican supermajorities in both chambers. As in Indiana, Republicans took the state House in 2010 and have held it ever since. They’ve controlled the Ohio Senate since the mid-1980s. Having picked up a seat in November, Republicans now hold their largest majority in the chamber in 70 years.

In American state politics these days, power results not from a contest of ideas, but rather from demographic identities. The country is divided along various, often overlapping lines, including race, age, gender, religious attendance and, increasingly, education levels. These various subgroups of Americans are increasingly sorted into separate geographic areas, a reality reflected in legislative results. These are close to winner-take-all situations for the majority party. Despite the upcoming presidential election and the round of redistricting that will follow, the map of legislative control isn’t likely to change much in the coming years. 

As Walter notes, Minnesota is now the only state with a divided legislature -- largely because the state Senate wasn’t up for grabs in the fall. The last time the nation had only one divided legislature was way back in 1914. Most legislatures today are not only unified but home to solid majorities. Supermajorities have become common and majorities on average are growing larger. Over the past decade, the median majority in state houses has risen from 22 seats to 29, while increasing in state senates from nine to 14 seats. 

What’s happened is that America has been experiencing a slow-motion realignment, with broad swaths of the country now off-limits to one party or the other. In the old days, when the South was solidly Democratic, voters there were often referred to as “yellow dog Democrats,” meaning they’d vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican. Now yellow dog fever is common in both parties. Divided by nothing so profound as slavery, which led to century-long Southern Democratic intransigence, the country’s politics have nonetheless become sectarian again, with blocs of voters differing on issues they consider fundamental and non-negotiable. Increasingly, Democrats won’t consider voting for any Republican at any level of government, a disdain Republicans are more than willing to return in kind. Democrats run up Soviet-style majorities in central cities and college towns, while their candidates fare even worse in rural and exurban America than they did during Barack Obama’s presidency. That’s why prominent Democratic gubernatorial contenders Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum lost last year in Georgia and Florida, respectively.

Lightning can strike anywhere -- Louisiana has a Democratic governor and Massachusetts a Republican governor -- but in most states the playing field has become tilted, with politicians from the minority party starting out well behind. Total control creates a spiraling effect for the out party, with donors and the national party unwilling to throw money at what look like losing propositions. In politics, power allows whichever party is in control to further bake in its advantages, while the bench on the other side starts to empty out. “When you take a pasting, money dries up, volunteer enthusiasm goes down, candidate recruitment is harder,” says Dion of the University of Evansville. “Everything conspires to make it difficult for the party that’s out of power.”

 


In the 1990s and 2000s, party control of the Indiana House vacillated between Democrats and Republicans several times. Today, the idea of a Democratic majority in Indiana seems like a dim memory. (Shutterstock)

 

Republicans currently control the legislatures in 31 states, while Democrats hold 18. In three-quarters of the states, the same party controls both the legislature and the governor’s office. It would be tempting to say that the era of divided government is over, except for the fact that governors, at least, are able to carve out personal profiles that sometimes allow them to cut against the partisan grain of their states. Popular Republican governors were reelected last year in otherwise blue states including Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont, while Democrats took back governorships in states that supported Donald Trump in 2016 such as Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In Illinois, where Chicago and its suburbs can outvote the rest of the state, Democrats are in the driver’s seat. In Indiana and Ohio, where the cities are smaller and minority populations are lower, Republican rule is assured. Until minority parties find a way of reshaping their coalitions, they face lowered ceilings of support in nearly every corner of the country. “In the [Indiana] Senate, there’s really no way you’re ever going to see Democrats significantly increase their numbers, because of the demographic patterns,” says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. “The Senate is basically off-limits to Democrats.”

There have always been one-party states -- blue Hawaiis and Marylands, Democratic deserts in Idaho and South Dakota. But until this decade, states with seemingly permanent legislative majorities were exceptional. Now, they’re more common than not. In both 2016 and 2018, stasis was the rule, with far fewer chambers changing hands than has been the historic norm. Last November, all but a few chambers saw less than five seats flip one way or the other. It was more common for no seats to change hands at all than to see pickups numbering in the double digits.

From Arkansas to Oregon, states that were competitive at the start of the decade have become strictly one-sided affairs. Nothing is forever in politics, but traditional swing states such as Colorado, Iowa and Nevada have all pledged their allegiance to one-party control. In the wake of the 2018 election, obituaries are being written for the Democratic Party in Missouri, another former presidential bellwether where the party lost a U.S. Senate seat and where two decades of GOP dominance in the legislature show no sign of abating. Meanwhile in California, no Republican running for statewide office managed to crack even 40 percent of the vote. Republicans elected a grand total of one new member to the state Assembly, the party’s loneliest freshman class since 1958. Democrats hold a 46-7 advantage in the congressional delegation, representing the smallest GOP share since 1883. “The California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time,” Kristin Olsen, a former GOP Assembly leader, wrote shortly after the election. 

Despite giving up a few chambers in the fall, Republicans still control the legislature in every state that President Trump carried in 2016. Thanks to their gains last year, Democrats now control both legislative chambers in every state that Hillary Clinton won, with the exception of the Virginia House and Senate and the Minnesota Senate, all of which are virtually tied but were not up for grabs in 2018. In states where Trump’s approval rating has fallen by at least 10 points since he took office, Democrats improved their share of legislative seats by 4.6 percent, according to calculations by St. Louis University political scientist Steven Rogers.

But there aren’t many states where Trump’s approval ratings have fallen that dramatically, or risen by much either. His poll numbers have remained remarkably consistent, reflecting the entrenched partisan divisions in the country. Exit polls in November suggested that 90 percent of Trump supporters voted for down-ballot Republicans, while 90 percent of his detractors voted Democratic. But both those numbers are considerably higher than has been the case under recent presidents.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when “compromise was not a curse word,” recalls Lena Taylor, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. That’s changed. All the political incentives run against cooperation, with voters looking for politicians to “stand up” against their enemies and “stand with” their partisan brethren. It’s become more difficult for politicians to get a hearing from voters on the other side, let alone change their minds.

Because partisan feelings are so strong, and voters are so well sorted geographically, almost every area is a stronghold, whether for Republicans or Democrats. The people who support gun control, access to abortion and gay rights tend to live in cities and dense suburbs, while those with opposing views live in small towns, exurbs and rural counties. For such reasons, the vast majority of legislative districts are not competitive. “People are locked into their voting patterns,” Taylor says.

 


There was a time in the recent past when “compromise was not a curse word,” says Lena Taylor, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. Now, she says, “people are locked into their voting patterns.” (David Kidd)

 

A dozen chambers flip, on average, in every election cycle. In 2016 and 2018, only half as many changed hands. In 2016, Republicans managed to take the Kentucky House and the Iowa Senate -- chambers that had long eluded them in states they otherwise dominated -- as well as the Minnesota Senate, even as Trump narrowly lost the state. Democrats, meanwhile, took over chambers in states that supported Clinton for president, namely the New Mexico House and both chambers in Nevada.

This past November, Democrats picked up seven chambers. These were all in Clinton states and most of them were short putts. They only needed to net one seat each to win the state senates in Colorado, Maine and New Mexico and to break a tie in Connecticut. They also took both chambers in New Hampshire and won back the Minnesota House -- which has replaced Indiana’s as the nation’s swingiest chamber this decade -- by picking up an impressive 18 seats. As noted earlier, the Minnesota Senate was not up for grabs, although there the Democrats again will only need one seat to take control in 2020. 

But that was about the extent of the upheaval. Democrats picked up more than 300 seats nationwide, lifting them to a post-2010 high-water mark. But that’s about 100 seats fewer than the average loss for the president’s party. “At the state level, you managed to have one of the least change elections in terms of legislatures that you had in decades,” says Walter of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

The Democratic takeover of the Minnesota House was built mostly in the suburbs. That was similar to what was happening in the rest of the country. Republicans still hold many suburban seats -- exit polls last November showed that the suburban vote was exactly tied in the most contentious U.S. Senate races -- but Democrats gained significant ground in what might be called Whole Foods suburbs, full of affluent and highly educated residents who don’t like Trump and have turned against his party. In winning the U.S. House, Democrats carried no fewer than 46 out of the 50 congressional districts with the highest levels of college attainment. As at the congressional level, legislative Democrats made their biggest inroads in 2018 in affluent suburbs outside cities such as Denver, Philadelphia and Raleigh, N.C. 

Republicans were completely wiped out in the San Francisco Bay Area, losing their last Assembly seats. They were also eliminated from King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, giving up four Senate seats and five in the House. Democrats picked up a total of four legislative seats in Oakland County, Mich., a rich suburb of Detroit, while ending more than 40 years of GOP rule on the county board of commissioners. In the Philadelphia suburbs, a dozen state House seats and four state Senate seats moved from the Republican to the Democratic column. 

Houston’s Harris County, which for years was the most closely split large county in presidential voting, has turned blue. Democrats gained a pair of state House seats there, while sweeping all 59 judicial races and installing first-time candidate Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Democrat, as the top county administrator. Republicans lost five state House seats in Dallas County and their remaining four House seats in the Austin metro area. The suburbs accounted for nearly all the Democratic gains across Texas.

In the suburbs of Johnson County, Kan., outside of Kansas City, Democrats gained four state House seats, giving them 10 in that county for the first time -- up from just two as recently as 2014. At the same time, however, several rural Democratic legislators lost. There are no Democratic legislators left from west of Hutchinson, in the center of the state, and only one remaining in the southeast. Similar stories can be told in other states. Up until about a dozen years ago, half the Democrats in the Iowa Senate were from districts west of Interstate 35. Now, none are left in those rural counties. “While Marion County and its suburbs are trending more Democratic, the vast majority of Indiana that’s mostly rural has shifted even more to the right than Indianapolis has shifted to the left,” says Jonathan Williams, vice president of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

If a mom picks up her kids from school in a BMW, odds are she’s voting Democratic. Conversely, the guy in a pickup truck who belongs to a union, or whose daddy did, is more than likely a Republican. The Republican Party has moved from the country club to the country, while the Democratic base has moved from the union hall to the faculty lounge. Democrats are far more likely to represent districts with a strong minority presence, while Republican areas continue to get older and whiter. “The most significant phenomenon is the concentration of Democrats in center city areas,” says Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort, a 2008 book that described the phenomenon of people increasingly clustering in like-minded communities. “It’s Democrats in central cities, and then they do poorly everywhere else. Essentially, you’re not going to vote for anybody with a ‘D’ beside their name in a Republican area.”

Bishop notes that, despite the growth in people identifying or registering as independents, most voters now are loyal partisans. Pollsters and political scientists have shown that individuals will change their positions on climate science, trade, immigration and the economy to jibe with their party’s positions. Recent studies have found that people are shifting their religious or secular affiliations to comport with their party. “Parties are about identity now, not about policy,” Bishop argues. “It makes it doubly hard for parties to get people to change.”

 

The most telling point may be that Democrats failed to make deep inroads into the GOP’s legislative advantage last year in what was generally a favorable climate. As noted earlier, the map of legislative control already closely parallels the Electoral College. To add to their totals, Democrats now need to gain ground on less favorable terrain.

Democrats can point with some satisfaction to Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where they won more votes in state House races last fall, even though they fell short of majorities. In Wisconsin, Democrats won 200,000 more state House votes, but the GOP held onto a 63-36 majority. This was no doubt partly the result of partisan gerrymandering, but most Democratic voters live in or around Madison and Milwaukee, meaning the number of districts they dominate or can win is limited. Across the country, Democrats should fare better in the next round of mapmaking, given gubernatorial and judicial wins or the creation of independent redistricting commissions. But maps that are fairer to Democrats, or even heavily tilted in their favor, won’t solve the party’s problem that most of its voters live in larger cities and close-in suburbs, creating huge majorities in the denser districts but at the same time “wasting” thousands of votes that they badly need elsewhere. That remains their Achilles’ heel.

To many Democratic minds, Virginia is the new model. In 2017, Democrats made unexpectedly large gains, picking up 15 state House seats. That was still one short of a tie and two short of a majority, but they are convinced they can make up the extra ground the next time around. Elections for the Virginia House will be held this year, along with contests for the state Senate, where Democrats would also need a net gain of two to take over the chamber. “Now that we know what we’re actually capable of, we’re going to be able to invest more in those reach seats and range into Trump territory,” says Chris Walsh, co-founder of Flippable, a group that supports Democratic legislative candidates.

Flipping close legislative chambers like the ones in Virginia is clearly doable. And many Democrats, recognizing the size of Republican majorities around the country, have adopted a “two-cycle strategy.” Where they chipped away last year, they believe they can make up the extra ground needed in 2020, or once redistricting takes place for 2022. Walsh points to chambers in states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas, all of which saw sizable Democratic gains last year. 

But suppose that all the Democratic dreams come true, and they win back legislatures in the Upper Midwest, while also realizing their long-gestating plans to become serious players in the Sun Belt. It’s unlikely to happen, but even a best-case scenario for the party means that legislatures in more than 40 states would likely stay fixed in place, remaining under one party’s control for the foreseeable future. For their part, Republicans, who have been dominant at the legislative level since 2010, remain in solid shape, controlling 63 chambers. But the GOP’s monopoly on rural and exurban territory is so complete that it’s difficult to see where else they might go on offense.

No political professional is willing to say that all hope is lost for minority parties in the foreseeable future. Things can change fast. Many chambers under supermajority control were competitive less than a decade ago. Perhaps the next president will be less divisive than Trump, allowing partisan fevers to cool and convincing people it’s all right to support candidates from the other party. 

But Trump is the fourth president in a row that at least half the country has deeply disliked. Both politics and the media have become more nationalized over that time period. In the South, the GOP first convinced yellow dog Democrats that it was acceptable to vote Republican for president, then lured them in for the U.S. Senate and on down the line until the party came to control local judgeships and county commissions. Now, it only makes sense for ambitious Southern politicians running for any office to run as Republicans. The same thing is starting to happen in reverse in other parts of the country. In Seattle, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who ran and won three times as a Republican, announced last May that he was switching to the Democratic Party. For a candidate seeking reelection in the Seattle area, that turned out to be the right move.

Partisan sorting and the nationalization of politics have made it more difficult -- often impossible, really -- for state legislators to convince voters from the other party to support them because of their independence, their fine work fixing roads and stoplights, or their approachability at the grocery store. “Not only are people sorting into the right party, but people are sorting geographically,” says Rogers, the St. Louis University political scientist. “No matter what we do, it may be impossible to create more moderate states.”

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