The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s grip on states is becoming a horror show. Some Democrats see a way out.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. (Chris O'meara/AP)

As the political world stumbles into 2022, the GOP’s grip on state governments appears as formidable as ever. Republicans will fully control the governorship and legislature in nearly half of states, while Democrats will have less than one-third. Republicans control either legislatures or governorships in Democratic-leaning swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia.

You often hear Democrats lament this ongoing GOP capture. Here’s what you hear less often: This is happening even as a confluence of factors is dramatically raising the stakes around who controls those governments on numerous fronts that carry far-reaching implications, including for the survival of U.S. democracy itself.

A new report from the Democratic super PAC Forward Majority urges Democrats to go on offense to change this state of affairs — with an eye toward the imperative of regaining ground in the states as critical to protecting democracy over the long term.

At first glance, the report’s conclusion seems grim. When it comes to macro national political trends, it says, “The outlook for Democrats is precarious.”

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The study ran dozens of potential scenarios over the next decade, adjusting various factors, such as the national mood and support for Democrats among college-educated and non-college-educated voters. It concludes: “We anticipate a defensive map over the next decade.”

However, the report reaches a somewhat more optimistic conclusion about the implications of all this for state legislative contests. It challenges the conventional wisdom that Democrats are permanently locked out of power in many states because of gerrymanders and previous GOP gains.

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While conceding Rust Belt states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will trend Republican, the report argues that because of new maps and other factors, those states will remain competitive, even as opportunities arise in Sun Belt states such as Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.

The report recommends a major effort to register millions of voters in states that show such growth opportunities. It also suggests a big push to focus more on the importance of suburban and exurban voters in state legislative contests, among many other things.

“There is so much unregistered opportunity,” David Cohen, a co-founder of Forward Majority, tells me.

Another challenge is to figure out how to better communicate with both base and swing voters, but specifically in ways that connect local contests to the increasing radicalization of the national GOP.

“Low information and swing voters are seeing local Republican representatives as distinct from the national Republican Party,” said Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority. She said Democrats must drive home that local Republicans are as “extremist” as the Trumpified GOP.

Other data analysts may quarrel with the assumptions in this report. But whatever the details, everyone will agree that Democrats have a great deal of work to do in the states. The key point is that this is now a lot more urgent.

Laboratories of antidemocracy

Consider this confluence of developments. The increasing likelihood that the filibuster will remain means Democrats will likely fail to pass protections for voting rights and safeguards against election subversion.

That, plus a recent Supreme Court decision further gutting the Voting Rights Act, will give state-level Republicans free rein to implement voter suppression measures and advance their efforts to capture partisan control over election machinery. These efforts are only accelerating.

This comes as Democrats will likely fail to reform the Electoral Count Act, again because of the filibuster, leaving us more vulnerable to a rerun of Donald Trump’s coup attempt. Continued GOP dominance of swing state legislatures — and the possibility of GOP victories in gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — will leave that pathway wide open.

Obviously the worst very well might not happen. A future presidential election would have to be much closer than 2020, and key GOP institutional actors would have to help plunge us into the abyss. But GOP state-level dominance should be seen alongside mounting antidemocratic energy on the right, which could mean more pressure on a GOP legislature to attempt such a thing.

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Importantly, as Zack Beauchamp details, GOP leaders are actively nurturing those sentiments. Indeed, a GOP takeover of the House and/or the Senate, where electoral votes are counted, could also make that more inviting, absent reform.

The interesting innovation in the Forward Majority report is to connect all this to the need to recapture ground on the state level. The loss of that ground is itself tightly bound with our crisis of democracy.

“Democrats’ failure to invest effectively in state legislative power over the past decade is a root driver of this crisis,” the report concludes, noting that in the battle to reverse this crisis, “state legislatures are ground zero.”

On top of all this, there are laws and proposals that GOP legislatures are pushing to restrict the teaching of the United States’ racial past, to give law enforcement new power to crack down on protesters, and to thwart efforts to fight the spread of covid-19 with mask and vaccine requirements, which have helped whip up rage and violence toward local officials. Ryan Cooper argues that all this hysteria breeds the conditions for a future Red Scare amid a Trump restoration.

Whatever is to be on that front, here’s the crucial point: GOP power on the state level needs to be seen alongside the confluence of new factors arising in our politics that, taken all together, are suddenly raising the stakes around who controls state legislatures — and raising them rather dramatically.