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Democrats fail to make gains in state legislative races in advance of 2021 redistricting

Democrats point to gerrymandering as Republicans successfully fend off state legislative challenges.

Republican North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (left) speaks to reporters about Election Day results, with Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and Republican House Majority Leader John Bell at state GOP headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 4.
Gary D. Robertson/AP

Ten years ago, Republicans routed Democrats in state legislative races across the country — gaining control of more seats than they had since 1928 and earning control of 54 of the 99 state legislative chambers, their highest total in 58 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

State House races are extremely important every cycle — they can decide to expand Medicaid, pass restrictions on abortion, enact criminal justice reform, or any array of policy decisions. But every 10 years, their importance is magnified after the census is taken and they are tasked with the process of redistricting legislative and congressional boundaries (which can decide partisan control of state legislatures and the US Congress for the next decade).

This year, banking on a blue wave, Democrats staked out an ambitious map aiming to spend $50 million to win legislative majorities in GOP-held chambers and gain control of key chambers in advance of next year’s redistricting fights. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) targeted both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Kansas as well as the Iowa and Michigan Houses and the Minnesota Senate.

In the end, the DLCC and two other national Democratic fundraising organizations raised $88 million to Republicans’ $60 million — but they don’t have much to show for it.

Votes in Arizona are still being counted, but if those chambers remain in GOP hands, Democrats will have failed to flip a single state chamber. In fact, the only chambers that will have changed hands are the New Hampshire House and Senate, which flipped to Republican control. This is a surprising defeat for Democrats — particularly as New Hampshire voters overwhelmingly reelected Democrats to the US Congress and voted for former Vice President Joe Biden by a wide margin.

According to the NCSL, this means that out of 98 chambers (not counting Nebraska’s unicameral and facially nonpartisan body), “59 are held by Republicans, 37 by Democrats.” And when it comes to unified control — meaning one party controls both the legislature and the governorship — Republicans have the edge holding 23 states to Democrats’ 15.

Democrats likely weren’t the only ones surprised by this outcome. In its October overview, Cook Political Report wrote: “ominously for Republicans, the GOP holds 14 of the 19 vulnerable chambers on our list. This suggests that the Democrats are well-positioned to net up to a half-dozen new chambers this fall, and more if it’s a genuine blue wave.” Cook pointed to Biden’s “strong” running in key states, expecting this to “boost down-ballot candidates.”

But that didn’t happen.

Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), told the Wall Street Journal on a press call Wednesday: “We beat the hell out of them, and they have nothing to show for it.”

Democrats blamed 2010’s heavy losses and the resulting redistricting by Republicans for this year’s defeats: “The reality is that Democrats are still paying for the mistakes that we made in 2010,” DLCC national press secretary Christina Polizzi told Vox. “It’s disappointing, but not surprising.”

The upcoming redistricting fights remain in Republican control

Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative and congressional geographical boundaries. Every decade, following the census, each state has to redraw its electoral boundaries with the updated demographic information. According to the NCSL, “when legislatures redraw maps, the majority party controls the process” — both parties do their best to gain political advantage, but it’s much harder for the minority party to do so.

If Democratic losses this year are due to 2010’s redistricting at the hands of the GOP, it’s hard to see their path forward as Republicans are yet again set to spearhead the redistricting process next year. The DLCC believes their losses are due to the map being “rigged” and point to gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts as proof.

This year’s most surprising state legislature election outcome in New Hampshire could be a result of that. As results were being finalized yesterday, New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Josh Rogers pointed out that the legislative maps were “drawn by Republicans a decade ago and are by design intended to favor Republicans.” Rogers highlighted polling by University of New Hampshire political scientist Andy Smith, who has found that for “Democrats to break even with Republicans in legislative races, they need to start with more than 50 percent of the popular vote.”

These issues aren’t unique to New Hampshire.

A 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that “Michigan’s maps are beyond the threshold for what is considered gerrymandering.” And as for Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Ari Berman wrote for the Washington Post on similar trends:

Political geographers from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon found, for instance, that there was “less than a one in one thousand chance” that the map passed by Wisconsin Republicans, which gave them 60 percent of the seats in the State Assembly, was based on where Democrats lived. “The partisan asymmetry in the existing map,” they wrote, “. . . was carefully and deliberately created, not a result of the natural clustering of voters in Wisconsin.”

The same was true in Pennsylvania, where University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen discovered “a small geographic advantage for the Republicans, but it does not come close to explaining the extreme 13-5 Republican advantage” in the state’s congressional delegation. Indeed, Pennsylvania Republicans went to almost comic lengths to contort political boundaries for partisan advantage, drawing one district, nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” that spanned five counties and 26 municipalities, and at one of its narrowest points ran through the parking lot of a seafood restaurant in the town of King of Prussia.

Beyond gerrymandering, laws restricting voting, some of which are written to specifically target low-income voters and people of color, have been passed by legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Republican victories.

An egregious example of this is in North Carolina, where, as NPR reports, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a strict voter ID law that also “cut back dramatically on the number of early voting days, eliminated same-day registration and declared that votes cast in the wrong precinct, even if the result of poll worker error, could not be counted.” Federal judges went on to throw out the law, writing that it “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

If Democrats are right and their losses down-ballot this year are due to redistricting and laws designed to suppress turnout of traditionally left-leaning demographics, it’s hard to see how they will fare better in the decade ahead.

As NCSL policy specialist Ben Williams told Vox: “The landscape is not the same as 2010, but it is fair to say that the fact that Republicans were able to hold their ground in competitive legislative chambers across the country ... means that they will have the majority, say, when it comes to redistricting in the coming cycle.”

Update, November 13: This piece has been updated to clarify which Democratic organizations raised $88 million for this election cycle.

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