The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans bolstered as Democrats hopes fall short in state legislative races

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Republicans fended off an effort by Democrats to revamp the balance of power in state legislatures, crushing expectations in Tuesday’s election by easily maintaining state House majorities ahead of the drawing of new congressional districts next year.

Although some competitive state legislative races remained too close to call Wednesday, Republicans claimed victory after results showed Democrats would fall far short of their goal to flip as many as many as seven state legislative chambers. Amid a surge in Republican turnout, Democrats had not made any gains in the Texas House of Representatives by Wednesday evening and lost ground in several other states, including Iowa and North Carolina.

Republicans have claimed victory in taking control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature, snatching back the power Democrats had won in the 2018 midterm elections.

“I can’t think of a worse failure for Democrats,” said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee in a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “When this year started, they were talking about how they were going to flip everything, and we had as cocky of an opponent as we’ve ever been up against. . . . But it was an absolutely great night for state Republicans.”

Democrats conceded Wednesday that they did not do as well as they had expected, but left out hope that they could still flip control of the Arizona House, where their candidates were locked in several tight races. Christina Polizzi, a spokeswoman of for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said party leaders did not expect that GOP voters would show up in such large numbers to support Trump in the presidential contest.

“While some of the outcomes have been disappointing, they have not been surprising give the broader dynamics of the cycle,” Polizzi said. “What surprised us — just as it did every pollster, journalist and Republican and Democratic strategist, was President Trump’s overperformance in many states and the boost it would give to so many Republican congressional and state legislative candidates.”

In all, among races that have already been called, Republicans appeared poised to net about 60 state House and more than a dozen state Senate seats nationwide, according to analysis by CNalysis, a political website that has been closely following the results. Republicans were especially successful in picking up Democratic-held seats in rural and working-class communities, which more than offset some Democrat wins.

The GOP victories will only bolster the advantage that the party held in many states heading into Tuesday’s election.

Republicans control 59 out of the 99 state legislative chambers, an advantage that has allowed them to enact restrictions on voting and abortion rights, block expansion of Medicaid in some states, and hinder Democrats from imposing restrictions to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past year, amid a surge in spending from Democratic-aligned groups, Democrats campaigned aggressively to win legislative chambers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Arizona and Iowa in hopes of giving their party more of a say over policy as well as the next round of congressional redistricting. That process begins next year after the conclusion of the 2020 census.

Chambers on Wednesday declared that the GOP gains on Tuesday now all but assures that Republicans can “secure a decade of power all across the country.”

“Our state Republican leaders across the country are going to control redistricting,” Chambers said. “And that is going to be a great thing for Republicans across the country.”

Democrats’ failure to pick up the Texas House, where they needed to flip nine seats, could be especially important for the GOP.

Texas’s congressional delegation, already the second biggest in the nation, will likely grow by an additional two or three seats after the 2020 Census. The process will not likely be speared by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the two Republican-controlled chambers of the legislature.

But Democrats and independent analysts said the results of Tuesday’s election were muddled enough that neither probably gained or lost much new ground when it comes to who will have the advantage during redistricting.

In several states where Republicans retained their legislative majorities — including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the legislature will have to work with the Democratic governor to draw congressional boundaries.

Democrats were especially pleased that Republicans in Wisconsin failed on Tuesday to win a veto-proof majority in that sate’s legislature. If they had, they would have been able to override Gov. Tony Evers (D) if he decides to veto a GOP-drawn congressional or state legislative map.

“Wisconsin is ground zero for Republicans rigging the maps, and this year we stopped the GOP from getting total power over the process again,” the DLCC said in a Twitter post.

Several other states, including Arizona, have established independent redistricting commissions that will be charged with the districts, said Ben Williams, a policy specialist who works in the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Redistricting and Elections Program.

“The story of the night really is continuity,” Williams said of the election results.

Still, Williams said the lack of turnover in state legislative chambers this year defies more than a century of political history.

From the early 20th Century until the present, Williams said an average of 12 legislative chambers have flipped to the opposing party during a two-year cycle. In the cycle, there may be as few as four, including Democratic success last year in retaking control of the Virginia House of Delegates and the state Senate.

Williams said the growing reluctance of voters to cast bipartisan ballots may be to blame.

“It looks like if you voted one way at the top of the ticket, you probably voted that way down ballot,” Williams said.

Chambers countered that state Republicans were so successful this year because they kept talking about local issues, including taxes and the economy. Chambers believes Democrats made a strategic blunder by trying to “nationalize” state legislative races into becoming another referendum on Trump.

“They tried to nationalize everything, and forgot voters understand Washington is different than their state capital,” Chambers said. “And there is no sane person who doesn’t understand they don’t want their state capitals to be like Washington, D.C.”