Repub­li­cans dom­i­nate pol­i­tics in states, but Dems make a dent


Over the past 25 years, Repub­li­cans have me­thod­i­cally con­sol­i­dated power in state leg­is­la­tures, tak­ing both cham­bers in ev­ery South­ern state, flip­ping long-Demo­cratic Mid­west­ern strongholds and claim­ing new ter­ri­tory like West Vir­ginia. Head­ing into the midterm elec­tions, they con­trolled two-thirds of all state leg­isla­tive bod­ies.

Newly en­er­gized ac­tivists and donors on the left had hoped to be­gin rolling back that trend this year, and Tues­day, Democrats took a big step, net­ting about 250 state leg­isla­tive seats. But their ma­jor vic­to­ries all came in states Hil­lary Clin­ton won in 2016. Their road back to sim­ple par­ity re­mains long.

State leg­is­la­tures

Democrats took out­right con­trol of seven cham­bers in six states, leav­ing Min­nesota as the only state with a di­vided Leg­is­la­ture. Those wins are mod­est com­pared with 2010, when Repub­li­cans cap­tured two dozen cham­bers be­fore the once-a-decade re­dis­trict­ing process that state leg­is­la­tures largely con­trol.

“Part of the rea­son Democrats did not do bet­ter on Tues­day was be­cause Repub­li­cans mostly drew the lines of the districts they’re still run­ning in,” said Tim Storey, di­rec­tor of state ser­vices for the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures. “That has haunted Democrats the en­tire decade, get­ting wiped out in 2010.”

Re­dis­trict­ing is around the cor­ner again, and that’s partly why Democrats have made a big­ger push this year. They’re re­act­ing, too, to much of what Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties pro­duced: stand-your-ground gun laws, voter ID re­quire­ments, bills lim­it­ing the power of unions, and so­cial poli­cies like gov­ern­ing who can use pub­lic bath­rooms.

Gover­nors’ of­fices

Democrats won the gover­nor’s of­fice in seven states (with races in Florida and Ge­or­gia still un­de­cided). They now claim the gover­nor’s man­sion in the swing states of Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin head­ing into the 2020 elec­tion. And they’ll take uni­fied con­trol of the leg­is­la­ture and ex­ec­u­tive branch in six new states.

Illi­nois, with its Demo­cratic-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture, will now have a Demo­cratic gover­nor. In New York, where Gov. An­drew Cuomo re­mains in power, the Demo­cratic Party will now con­trol the state Se­nate for the first time in a decade. (Demo­cratic can­di­dates won a ma­jor­ity of Se­nate seats there in 2012, but a group of them formed a coali­tion with Repub­li­cans, giv­ing them con­trol of the cham­ber.)

As a tes­ta­ment to their dom­i­nance over the past two decades, Repub­li­cans en­ter­ing this elec­tion held uni­fied power in 25 states — a re­mark­able shift from when they con­trolled no sin­gle state in 1976. Democrats held com­plete power in just eight states en­ter­ing this elec­tion, af­ter off-cy­cle elec­tions in New Jersey and Washington in 2017.

Uni­fied state con­trol

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists say Repub­li­cans have be­come so dom­i­nant at the state level be­cause of their fo­cus on or­ga­ni­za­tion and al­liances with well-funded pro-busi­ness groups, like the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Ex­change Coun­cil (ALEC). And they’ve risen to power in the states dur­ing a time, since the 1980s, when re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have in­creas­ingly shifted to the states to set rules for fed­eral pro­grams. Most state leg­is­la­tures have no fil­i­buster, mak­ing ac­tion eas­ier there, too.

“By the time that pro­gres­sives wake up to the fact that con­ser­va­tive net­works have been so suc­cess­ful, they are now start­ing from be­hind,” said Alexan­der Her­tel-fer­nan­dez, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Columbia Univer­sity who has writ­ten a forth­com­ing book, “State Cap­ture,” cov­er­ing this pe­riod.

Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tors have had more power than Repub­li­cans in Congress to de­rail parts of the Af­ford­able Care Act, by re­fus­ing its of­fer to fund most of a Med­ic­aid ex­pan­sion. Across a range of other con­ser­va­tive pri­or­i­ties, model bills ad­vo­cated by groups like ALEC have been adopted in states across the coun­try.

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