Democrats came out of the 2008 elections feeling really good, and not just about the fact that they had nominated, and the country had elected, America’s first Black president. After two consecutive national landslide wins, they were sitting pretty across the land, with a super-majority in the Senate, the largest margin of control in the House either party had in decades, 29 governorships, and 27 state legislatures (and a share of power in eight more). There was much talk of an Obama Coalition that included all the rising elements of the electorate, and of the GOP as a spent force that had wrecked the economy and shown the folly of its foreign policy hubris in Iraq.
But in the 2010 midterms, disaster struck for Democrats. They lost 63 House seats — the most either party had lost since 1948 — and losing control of the chamber. Republicans flipped seven U.S. Senate seats, six governorships, and an incredible 20 state legislative chambers. If the size of the comeback was impressive, the timing was impeccable. All those state gains gave the GOP the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process that unfolded in 2011 and 2012 in which legislatures redrew lines for themselves and their U.S. House delegations. Particularly egregious Republican gerrymandering ensued in states ranging from the midwest (e.g., Michigan and Wisconsin) to the northeast (Pennsylvania) to the sunbelt (Florida, North Carolina, and Texas).
While most of the focus ahead of the 2020 elections is on the presidential contest and the Democratic drive to regain control of the U.S. Senate, the wave that seems to be building up for the Donkey Party could equal 2018’s and put Democrats in a far better position in the next round of redistricting than seemed possible less than a year ago.
Right now the Democratic advantage in the congressional generic ballot — a polling estimation of the national House popular vote — gives them a 8.8 percent advantage, according to RealClearPolitics averages. They won the national House popular vote by 8.4 percent in 2018, so they are on track to consolidate and perhaps expand their control of the House, which could be crucial if Joe Biden becomes president and the usual midterm House losses for the party controlling the White House occur in 2022.
But it’s at the state legislative level that big 2020 gains could pay off richly for Democrats, as Ron Brownstein explained on Friday:
Democrats are pursuing a wide range of state-level targets in both the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. Party strategists believe they have the best chance to dislodge current Republican majorities in the Minnesota state Senate; the state Houses in Texas, Michigan, and Iowa; and one or both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The GOP advantage now stands at six seats or fewer in all of those chambers except the Texas and Pennsylvania houses, where the Republican cushion is nine seats each. Democratic groups are contesting Florida and Georgia as well, but with the bigger GOP margins there (14 seats in Florida and 16 in Georgia), they remain a tougher climb.
It’s worth noting that among these targets, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas are expected to gain seats in the reapportionment of the U.S. House after the Census is complete, while Michigan and Pennsylvania are expected to lose seats. These are the states where control of redistricting can have the biggest partisan impact.
Democratic potential in state legislative races actually may be larger than you’d guess from looking at the overall balance of power as indicated by the presidential contest:
For the legislative races, the key question isn’t whether Trump or the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, wins a given state; it’s how Trump and Biden perform in the specific seats Democrats are targeting, particularly in major metropolitan regions. Even if Trump holds states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona by maximizing his rural performance, Democrats could still get a huge boost in down-ballot races if Biden routs the president in the growing urban and suburban areas. Biden’s performance in big metros is “the whole ball game,” Vicky Hausman, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a Democratic group that tries to flip state chambers, told me. “Trump can run up the score in the rural areas, and it doesn’t impact our path to the majority through the suburbs.”
Unfortunately for Democrats, there are only 11 governorships up for grabs in 2020, and according to the Cook Political Report, the only two competitive races (in North Carolina and Montana) involve seats currently held by Democrats.
Still, if Democrats can pull off an election cycle in which they gain the White House and the Senate; consolidate their hold on the House; and gain the upper hand in redistricting in a number of states with large congressional delegations, that will represent a good year’s work. And as they learned ten years ago, being on the downside of this sort of election can create some long-term challenges for the losers.