The 2018 election was a good one across the board for Democrats. But what are they doing with all that new power?
At the federal level, it’s still to be determined what Democrats will make of their majority in the House of Representatives. But we can start to answer that question in the states now that many legislatures have wrapped up for the year.
Democrats flipped legislative bodies from New York to Washington, including in states where they had been locked out of power for years. Those state this year passed laws generally opposed by Republicans on everything from climate change to expanding access to abortion. The states where Democrats won a trifecta of government control — state legislatures and the governor’s mansion — had the most success. States like New York, Maine, Washington, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado passed a flurry of liberal policies.
The 2018 cycle didn’t mark a huge shift in the balance of power at the state level — Republicans still control the most legislatures, by far. But with eight new majorities (including 400 new seats across almost every state), Democrats put enough of a dent in Republican control at the state level to make some notable changes to state law. Here’s what they did:
On abortion: While much of the attention this legislative session was on states that effectively tried to ban abortion, those laws were not necessarily a reaction to the 2018 election. They came in states like Alabama and Georgia, which already had conservative majorities before the election.
On the other side, half a dozen states passed laws designed to affirm or expand abortion access in 2019, and some of those states were only able to do that after Democratic wins.
New York, Vermont and Maine all passed laws designed to expand abortion access in their states. New York had its first full Democratic majority in the state Senate since 2009. Vermont’s Republican governor signed such an abortion rights bill after Democrats won a veto-proof majority in the state House. In Maine, Nevada and Illinois, new Democratic governors signed abortion rights bills into laws that their Republican predecessors opposed.
On climate change: After several years of struggling to pass such legislation, a newly Democratic Maine Senate helped pass three climate change bills designed to increase renewable energy production and cut down on greenhouse gas emission. (Maine could be in most of our categories; it has an entirely Democratic government for the first time since 2010.)
In Colorado, a climate change bill to cut that state’s carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2050 advanced without a single Republican vote — which didn’t much matter because, as in Maine, Democrats flipped the state Senate and now control the entire state legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Democrats flipped Washington’s state Senate in 2017 by winning a special election there, meaning they convened in 2019 with a newly blue legislature. And they used it to passed a bunch of liberal priorities, including one of the most ambitious climate change bills in the nation to require the state to use 100 percent clean energy by 2045. (Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, is running for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform of climate change.)
On gun control: The Fix named gun-control advocates one of the winners of the state legislative session this year. They celebrated major victories in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, the latter two passing the Holy Grail of gun-control bills: expanding background checks. It’s not a coincidence that Democrats in all these states have new trifectas of state power.
On Medicaid expansion: Virginia expanded Medicaid in 2018 to 400,000 low-income residents, something Democrats didn’t expect to happen for a while. That’s because before the 2018 election cycle, Republicans controlled the state House by a two-to-one margin. But with one wave election, Democrats came close (and I mean really close) to wiping out their majority. The state’s Democratic governor quickly used the momentum to expand Medicaid.
On the minimum wage: The number of states with a $15 minimum wage doubled in 2019, according to Bloomberg Law. That wasn’t a surprise in states like California or Maryland, which are heavily Democratic controlled and have been for some time. But it was a new development in New Mexico, which got a Democratic governor in 2018 to add to its Democratic legislature. They passed the state’s first minimum wage hike in a decade, from $7.50 to $12 an hour.
On voting rights: Nevada Democrats had already flipped the state legislature last cycle. But in 2018, they won the governorship and now have full control of the state. (And Nevada became the nation’s first female-majority legislature.) A top priority for Democrats there was to expand voting access. They passed nearly half a dozen laws to that end, setting up automatic voter registration with driver’s license renewals and restoring voting rights to people on parole or probation.
Counter programming: Republicans didn’t pick up any state legislative chambers in 2018, but they still control state legislatures in 30 states (compared to Democrats in 18). That meant Republicans were able to pass effective bans on abortion in five states. They also had some under-the-radar wins. Florida is controlled entirely by Republicans, and “conservatives had one of their most successful sessions in years,” writes Florida Politics blog, banning sanctuary cities and creating a voucher system to allow some students to attend private schools.