Democrats failed to break the GOP’s grip on state legislatures Tuesday, bolstering conservative policy priorities and giving Republicans increased power leading into the crucial redistricting process in 2021.
It was a disappointing result for Democrats who were hoping for a “blue wave” election that would reach down to statehouses and put them in a better position for progressive legislation and new electoral maps.
In most states, the election will maintain existing conditions, a shift from recent elections in which at least a half-dozen chambers changed control, according to Wendy Underhill, director of the elections and redistricting team at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“This year, unlike all the others, with so much noise and money going into this election, and yet the results are status quo, no change,” she said. “It’s jaw-dropping.”
In a blog post, Underhill and Tim Storey, NCSL’s executive director, reported that this year’s elections likely will bring the fewest party control changes since 1944, when only four chambers changed hands.
“On average, over the course of many years, there have been 12 chamber flips in any two-year cycle,” Underhill said in a phone interview. “It was lower in 2012, about six or eight. If it gets down to two or three [this year], it’s historic.”
Democrats had high hopes of taking control of the Texas House for the first time in nearly two decades, but fell short, despite tens of millions of dollars flowing in from state and national groups. Democrats’ hopes also were dashed in Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina. In Texas and Iowa, winning control of a legislative chamber would have broken Republican “trifectas,” in which the party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature.
Republicans appeared to have gained two new trifectas — in New Hampshire by seizing the state Senate, and in Montana with a victory in the gubernatorial race.
Unified party control can bring a slew of partisan bills. In recent years, Democratic majorities have increased minimum wages, enacted clean energy legislation and funded full-day kindergarten, while Republican majorities have enacted restrictions on abortion rights and voting rights and blocked expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The GOP’s strong performance comes at an especially critical time, following the 2020 census. Back in 2011, Republican trifectas in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin allowed the GOP to draw legislative district lines that made it easier for their candidates to win state and federal races.
In 2018, for example, Democrats won 53% of Assembly votes cast statewide, but they won only 36 of 99 seats, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of state election returns.
“There are states where it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to win majorities, simply by way of how the lines were drawn 10 years ago,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Before Tuesday, there were 36 trifectas among the 50 states, 14 Democratic and 22 Republican.
Democrats could break a Republican trifecta in Arizona this year by flipping three seats in the Arizona Senate, to take control of that chamber for the first time since the 1960s. But results were not yet final Wednesday.
The gains in Arizona, which appears to have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1996, could give Democrats more power to block Republican priorities.
Since 1990, Arizona’s Republican-controlled government has cut taxes every year but two, said David Lujan, a former Democratic member of the state legislature who now leads the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, a Phoenix-based think tank.
Lujan said Democrats may be able to block new tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people and push more money to schools or other services. “One of the biggest things you’ll see with Democrats is blocking some of those special interest tax breaks that we’ve seen year after year,” he said.
In Montana, where Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte won the governor’s race, the GOP is poised to maintain control of the state House and Senate. That would make it easier for Gianforte to act on his campaign promises, such as protecting gun rights and cutting taxes.
Montana Republicans may also be able to advance policies blocked by Democratic governors in the past. For instance, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last year vetoed a bill that would have required medical intervention for infants born after a failed late-term abortion. Gianforte said in a debate this fall he would have signed that bill.
In states where a trifecta was not in question, Democrats also failed to make hoped-for gains this week. In Kentucky, voters increased the Republicans’ majority in the House and Senate. In New York, Republicans held a lead in 11 of the 16 competitive state Senate races, and were poised to keep Democrats from winning a veto-proof majority.
Republicans successfully defended every chamber and majority that affects redistricting, said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, an organization that coordinates redistricting strategy for Republicans, in an email to Stateline.
Democrats’ gains in Arizona won’t mean much, as Arizona is among the states that rely on independent commissions, rather than the legislature, to draw district lines.
“Republicans are in a stronger position to control the next cycle than we were heading into last night,” Kincaid wrote.