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Midterms 2018: the battle for state legislatures

US Capitol building Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Do you know the names of your state legislators?

If you’re anything like most Americans, you do not — and that’s great news for Democrats running for state legislature in 2018. Most people pay almost no attention to state legislature policymaking or politics and just blindly vote in line with their overall sentiment about national politics.

There’s an extremely strong correlation between the popular vote for the US House of Representatives and state legislative voting. And we know that at this point, the national generic ballot favors Democrats — and that Donald Trump is unpopular.

That anti-GOP tide is likely to sink a ton of Republican state legislature candidates regardless of what they do or who their opponents are, simply because nobody is paying attention.

The saving grace for the GOP is that state legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered. In lots of states, Republicans can lose the popular vote by 5 or 6 points and still maintain their majorities.

But we are very likely to see some chambers flip this November. The Democratic committee for state legislative races has identified 17 key races that could collectively flip eight chambers. And, given national trends, Democrats will likely flip far more than 17 seats.

In terms of actually flipping chambers, though, it is worth noting that the “stretch” goal on that 17/8 list is to flip the Florida state Senate by picking up five seats — and Florida is one of the states where Trump’s numbers have held up worst.

In general, Democrats are well-positioned to make gains down-ballot in 2018. That’s going to give them a bigger voice in 2020 redistricting and, of course, in the important work of state policymaking.

Democratic legislatures will be more likely to expand Medicaid, raise teacher pay, enact minimum wage increases, and go for things like automatic voter registration that will increase political participation down the road. Trump’s deep unpopularity is likely to give state-level Democrats a big boost.

However, this particular bit of good news for Democrats is basically bad news for American democracy.

Federalism doesn’t really work

The problem here is that the basic conceit of American federalism is that state governments are, in some sense, “closer to the people” than the federal government.

But in actual voting behavior, this is not the case. People develop relatively strong opinions about the president of the United States, and to a lesser extent about his allies and opponents in Congress. They then seem to mostly just punish or reward state legislative candidates for how they align with those federal opinions, largely without regard for the actual content of state legislative work done by state-level candidates.

It’s interesting to note that elections for governor do not carry this pattern. Right now we have moderate Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland, and moderate Democrats in Louisiana and Montana. Local GOP unpopularity is giving Democrats a real shot in Oklahoma and Kansas gubernatorial elections, while Republicans have a fighting chance in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

In other words, people take governors’ elections seriously on the candidates’ own terms. They recognize that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is less conservative than the average Republican and that his opponent Ben Jealous is more left-wing than the average Democrat — and that the policymaking stakes in the Maryland gubernatorial election are not identical to the stakes in a federal election.

But most state governments set up relatively weak governor’s offices, with multiple separately elected statewide officeholders and strong legislative control.

The idea behind both the power devolution to state government and then the decentralization of power away from governors is to promote democracy or forestall tyranny or something like that. In practice, though, state legislature outcomes are a second-order consequence of people’s feelings about the president as filtered through early years’ worth of gerrymandering.

It’s a disaster, and we would do well to concentrate more power in the hands of personality-driven governors’ elections and/or to try to create distinct state party labels that separate state issues from federal ones.

This is an abbreviated web version of The Weeds newsletter, a limited-run newsletter through Election Day, that dissects what’s really at stake in the 2018 midterms. Sign up to get the full Weeds newsletter from Matt Yglesias, plus more charts, tweets, and email-only content.

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