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.
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.
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.