Democrats’ biggest wins were in state legislatures
Democrats pulled off a significant victory on Nov. 6. No, it wasn’t taking back the House in Congress. It’s what they did in state legislatures around the country.
Democrats made strides in a number of statehouses. They seized control of seven legislative chambers, flipping the state senates in Colorado, Maine and New York; the House in Minnesota; and both chambers in New Hampshire. Connecticut’s Senate, previously evenly split, is now held by Democrats. They broke Republican supermajorities in Michigan and Pennsylvania’s senates and both chambers in North Carolina.
Democrats also flipped seven governorships. They now completely control all three statehouse branches in 13 states and Washington, D.C., compared to the seven statehouses where they held trifecta control before Election Day.
These victories arguably hold the same, if not more, heft than the inroads Democrats made in Congress. At the fed- eral level, legislative achievements have ground to nearly a complete halt in recent years.
At the same time, progressive goals like a higher minimum wage and guaranteed paid leave have only been realized at the state level. Congress hasn’t raised the minimum wage since 2007, keeping it stuck at $ 7.25 an hour for more than a decade, but 13 state legislatures and D.C. have passed their own higher wages since 2014. Currently, 29 states and D.C. have wage floors above the federal backstop. This year alone, these increases boosted pay for over 15 million workers.
The same pattern has appeared for paid sick leave. The Democrats’ congressional bill to ensure all workers in the country can take paid time off if they or their family members fall ill has never moved forward. But since 2011, 11 states have passed paid sick leave legislation to do just that for their residents, along with 19 cities and three counties. Similarly, there is no federal guarantee of paid family leave for the arrival of a new child or a serious illness or disability, and a bill to establish a program countrywide hasn’t advanced. But six states and D.C. have set up their own programs in the meantime.
Democrats can push further to raise wages and benefits for American workers. If the Supreme Court weakens Roe v. Wade, Democratic-controlled legislatures can enshrine women’s reproductive freedom in their own laws. They can address climate change through carbon pricing and renewable energy mandates. States can also protect voting rights, through automatic voter registration and other reforms, reduce mass incarceration by getting rid of cash bail and needlessly punitive policies and curb gun violence with gun control legislation.
After the 2010 midterms, Republicans seized majority control of 11 state legislatures. These were the states that enacted some of the harshest budget cuts in the wake of the recession while often cutting taxes at the same time, leading to disproportionate drops in their public sector work forces. While many states had to pare back their budgets to respond to the pain of the recession, some have since bounced back. Most states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending by 2016, for example, while only five controlled by Republicans did the same. A number of Republican controlled states, such as Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma, decided to cut taxes instead of getting education funding back to normal.