2020 elections

2020 Was a Disaster for Democrats Trying to Take Over State Houses

The Texas State Capitol remains under tight Republican control. Photo: Joe Ybarra/EyeEm/Getty Images

Often the returns for state legislative races are slow to come in, and they are understandably overshadowed by presidential and congressional results. But of all the disappointments Democrats suffered on and immediately after November 3, a pattern of failure in expensive and ambitious efforts to flip state legislative chambers may have the most long-lasting effects. As Politico reports, it seems to have gone pretty badly for the Donkey Party way down ballot:

An abysmal showing by Democrats in state legislative races on Tuesday not only denied them victories in Sun Belt and Rust Belt states that would have positioned them to advance their policy agenda — it also put the party at a disadvantage ahead of the redistricting that will determine the balance of power for the next decade …

By Wednesday night, Democrats had not flipped a single statehouse chamber in its favor. And it remained completely blocked from the map-making process in several key states — including Texas, North Carolina and Florida, which could have a combined 82 congressional seats by 2022 — where the GOP retained control of the state legislatures.

After months of record-breaking fundraising by their candidates and a constellation of outside groups, Democrats fell far short of their goals and failed to build upon their 2018 successes to capture state chambers they had been targeting for years.

It will take a while to sort through the debris, but it appears that the same disappointing suburban results that hurt Democrats in U.S. House races kept them from making the expected gains in state legislative contests as well. Indeed, as the National Conference of State Legislatures reports, the power dynamics in state governments in 2021 are likely to be the same as those in place right now:

[O]f the chambers we can call, we have zero changes so far. In other words, this appears to be a remarkably status quo election in the U.S. states.

It looks like this will be the least party control changes on Election Day since at least 1944 when only four chambers changed hands. It’s still possible that there could be even fewer than four flips as a result of Tuesday’s voting. In the 1926 and 1928 elections, only one chamber changed hands. And 2020 could conceivably match that.

There were only 11 gubernatorial elections this year, and most of them were completely noncompetitive. Just one state changed hands: Montana, where Republican congressman Greg Gianforte easily defeated Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney for the position of two-term Democratic governor Steve Bullock (who himself ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate).

But the really bitter setbacks for Democrats were in state legislative races in states where redistricting could have a significant impact on drawing new and favorable congressional districts with the 2020 Census results, as Politico notes:

Votes are still being tallied, but it appears Democrats missed nearly all of their top targets — though there’s a slight chance they could gain control in the Arizona House and Senate. Party operatives concede they are not on track to win the Michigan or the Iowa houses, either chamber in Pennsylvania or the Minnesota state Senate, which was their most promising target this cycle.

Democrats did not flip the two seats needed to claim the majority in Minnesota’s upper chamber, which would have given them trifecta control of both chambers and the governor’s office. That outcome gives them less of an opening to protect some of the Democratic incumbents clustered around the Twin Cities next year when Minnesota is likely to lose a seat in the next redistricting.

The biggest disappointment came in the seat-rich state of Texas, Democrats needed nine seats to reclaim the majority after flipping a dozen in the midterms. Though some races remain uncalled, so far Democrats were able to unseat one incumbent and Republicans offset that with another pickup.

Georgia and North Carolina were additional states with large U.S. House delegations where Democrats had high hopes of busting up Republican control. It’s true that a trend toward bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions will curb gerrymandering in this next decennial cycle, but not in most Republican-controlled states. And it’s worth remembering that last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear federal courts would no longer even consider interfering with state legislatures engaged in partisan gerrymandering.

Demographic trends will help Democrats in some of their target states in the future. But in many, for the next decade, they will be struggling uphill as Republicans succeed in retrenching their power in the crucial state legislative election years ending in zeroes.

2020 Was a Disaster for Dem Trying to Take Over State Houses