Of all the depressing results for Democrats in the midterm elections, the ones at the state level might be the most grim — as in, not since the Jazz Age grim.
Republicans control 68 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers — the highest number in the history of the party — and over 4,100 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats. That is their highest number of legislators since 1920, as Tim Storey at the National Conference of State Legislatures writes.
In addition, Republicans currently hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states, while Democrats have that level of control in only seven.
Of course, as David Byler, an election analyst at RealClearPolitics,reminds us, it was not always this way: Democrats dominated state elections “for most of the postwar era, often controlling between 60 and 80 chambers.”
But that era is now but a memory — and most observers agree that there is no easy fix to regain some semblance of balance, which could haunt the party’s future.
How did it get so bad for Democrats? Mr. Byler points out that “three factors in particular — the increasing strength of Southern Republicans, recent strategic efforts to gain state chambers and the national political conditions of 2014 — together explain how the G.O.P. has turned the tide in recent years and built a massive advantage in the state capitals.”
The changing allegiance of Southern voters explains a good chunk of that shift, though full control wasn’t consolidated in certain states, like Texas, until the early 2000s. Republicans also invested heavily — and strategically — in the 2010 elections, which determined the “decennial congressional and state-level redistricting process,” Mr. Byler writes.
In dollar terms, he adds: “Since the 2004 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee has raised over $140 million to help accomplish this. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the R.S.L.C.’s counterpart, raised less than half that amount in the same period.”
For many, the first step in becoming competitive again is a seat at the redistricting table in 2020. If the Democrats fail to do that, Amy Walter says at The Cook Political Report, they may find themselves locked out of a congressional majority for another 10 years.
Indeed, Jay Barth, a political-science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., tells Op-Talk, “The 2020 redistricting process — at least in those states where Democrats are able to get a legitimate role in the process — presents the next great opportunity to influence electoral politics for state legislatures.”
And as Christopher Mooney, the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, tells Op-Talk, “if you’ve got control of the map, you can make that work for you, as long as you can do it in a way that will pass legal muster.”
Of course, as Mr. Barth points out, increased partisan redistricting comes with a cost: It undermines “any real cross-ideological conversations from happening,” he says, and adds: “Layered on top is a hypersegmented media structure that means that Democrats rarely hear Republicans and Republicans rarely listen to Democrats in conversations about political issues.”
And so “redistricting is what locks this reality about American life into electoral dynamics,” he says.
At The Washington Post, Greg Sargent focuses on specific places where Democrats can change state dynamics. He spoke with David Wasserman, of The Cook Political Report: “The starting point for changing it, Wasserman notes, would be in the big swing states that President Obama carried in 2012. Even though Obama won them, Dems still hold far fewer legislative and Congressional seats than Republicans do. In Ohio, the breakdown of seats in the next Congress will be 12 Republican, four Democratic. In Pennsylvania the breakdown will be 13 Republican, five Democratic.”
As Mr. Sargent points out, “even in those big swing states, Republicans have large majorities in the state legislatures — a holdover from 2010 redistricting on the state level, too.”
But even assuming neutral maps in these states — a huge and improbable assumption — Mr. Sargent quotes Mr. Wasserman as saying that Democrats “would still fall well short of winning back the House,” often because Democratic voters are heavily allocated in urban areas.
Mr. Mooney cautions that, while the situation is indeed alarming for Democrats, some of it — and maybe a lot of it — comes from the natural ebb and flow of politics: “Americans get sick of what you got after awhile and want to go the other way with it. The Republicans in running the states will inevitably anger a lot of people. When you’re in control, you have to make choices, and by definition, those choices will have losers.”
He adds, “I can guarantee that, if history is any guide, the Republicans will shoot themselves in the foot after awhile, and Americans, who are naturally suspicious of power, will look at the other party.”
Meanwhile, several observers suggest that what Democrats really need is a massive resettlement program. For example, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Mr. Sargent notes, Democratic districts are heavily clustered in cities like Columbus, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Mr. Barth adds, “smart redistricting is the key way to reallocate votes most efficiently.”
Other observers pointed out that Democratic weakness at the state level carries more costs than just the impact on the House of Representatives.
For example, Mr. Mooney notes that in electing presidents, Americans often look to governors (our current commander in chief excepted). He points to the former governors George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. “It’s a parallel job, they have executive experience,” Mr. Mooney says.
Regarding the shortage of Democratic governors at the moment, he notes, the weak economy may have battered their chances because “redistricting doesn’t explain gubernatorial success” in many states.
He offers the examples of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush as governors who have achieved at least some ideological balance. In states like Florida, New Jersey or Wisconsin, “you learn skills that help you govern as a centrist and develop a record and experience,” Mr. Mooney says. “They have to balance budgets, and they’re forced to make tough decisions. That’s a double-edge sword, but if you have the skills or learn the skills of a govern and are able to do it well — balance a budget, avert crises — and do it in a way that the governor retains popularity to some extent, voters think, Here’s a guy who knows what he’s doing.”
For Democrats at the moment, there are very few governors in that position. Mr. Mooney singles out Jerry Brown in California as being a surprisingly successful governor, but he’s in a state that is in many ways ideologically to the left of where the nation is at the moment.
At Slate, Jamelle Bouie emphasizes that “states are where parties build talent and try new ideas. Here, the G.O.P. is instructive. Its brightest stars are either governors (Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) or former state officeholders (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Joni Ernst). And Republican-controlled statehouses have been incubators for conservative ideas, from experiments in tax cutting (Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana and Sam Brownback’s Kansas) to full-fledged assaults on public-sector unions (Walker’s Wisconsin and Christie’s New Jersey).”
Though Mr. Barth agrees that “having control of so many governorships is a big advantage for the G.O.P. in terms of talent creation,” he also notes that with Democratic dominance in the nation’s cities, “we will likely see a legitimate national figure emerge from the big-city mayor ranks in the next few cycles.”
“Because of their dominance in the cities, Democratic mayors do have a great opportunity to engage in policy entrepreneurialism in those cities without much obstructionism from Republicans,” Mr. Barth adds.
Kenneth P. Vogel at Politico notes that at least one progressive group has recognized the importance of the redistricting fight, forming the State Innovation Exchange (known as SiX): “SiX’s goal is an ambitious one: to compete with a well-financed network of conservative groups” — including especially the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — “that for years have dominated state policy battles, advancing pro-business, anti-regulation bills in state after state.”
“With strong, deep-pocketed assistance from ALEC and its allies,” Mr. Vogel continues, “Republican lawmakers in dozens of states in recent years have pushed legislation to roll back union power and enact voting restrictions that disproportionately affect African-Americans. ALEC also helped craft GOP base-revving legislation like the controversial Stand Your Ground measures, which are now law in 30 states.”
And perhaps the efforts of SiX or groups like it will help with the redistricting, Mr. Vogel writes, as well as Democratic legislation: SiX hope to raise millions a year “to boost progressive state lawmakers and their causes — partly by drafting model legislation in state capitols to increase environmental protections, expand voting rights, and raise the minimum wage — while also using bare-knuckle tactics like opposition research and video tracking to derail Republicans and their initiatives.”
It’s “on the margins” that “redistricting can help you,” Mr. Mooney said. “It’s always on the margins — you can’t change the world,” but if you can “get to over 50 percent, especially in the legislative process, then marginal stuff matters.”