That certainly wasn’t the election night Democrats were hoping for.
I mean sure, Donald Trump is on track to lose to Joe Biden. Which is good.
But down-ballot races were … more than disappointing.
Because Democrats at every level of government will suffer the consequences of GOP success at the ballot box in a year that ends in zero for the next decade.
As an erudite reader of this missive, I know you understand that state legislative politics and elections aren’t as tidy and straightforward as their federal counterpart.
So let’s discuss what happened on Tuesday and what it means for [[waves hands]] everything.
While results in some statehouses are still shaking out (yeah, I’m looking at you, Arizona), we already know that Republicans successfully defended their majorities in several key chambers.
Minnesota Senate (not set in stone yet but looks likely Dems netted only one seat here)
North Carolina House
North Carolina Senate
Pennsylvania House (also not set in stone but not looking great)
So what happened?
Did disaffected Republicans take their ire at Trump out at the top of their ballots and then ticket-split to support GOPers further down?
Should Democrats have worked harder to tie down-ballot Republicans to Trump?
Were resources allocated poorly?
I could drop a hot take here, but I respect you too much for that.
The truth is that we just don’t know yet.
All of these things could be true. None of them could be true.
But here are two things that are 100% true:
Democrats were vying to flip districts specifically gerrymandered to elect Republicans.
While the disparity wasn’t as severe as in cycles past, Republicans out-raised Democrats and outspent them in several key chambers.
But let’s face it: Even if Democrats flip one or both chambers in Arizona, Election Day 2020 was a disappointment.
Ya know what? I’ll take disappointment over a bloodbath.
Here’s a little perspective.
Election Day 2010 replaced Election Day 2000 as the most excruciating of my life, and even 2016 wasn’t savage enough to supplant it.
And 2020 certainly wasn’t.
It’s an oft-forgotten fact that Democrats appeared to be sitting pretty before the 2010 elections.
They held majorities in 60 chambers.
Republicans held just 36, and two were tied.
But many of those majorities were extremely small.
Dems held several chambers by just a couple of seats.
But then the party collectively seemed to forget that redistricting was going to be happening in 2011.
Republicans, as we know, very much did not forget, and they outspent Democrats three-to-one to target a handful of flippable seats in key chambers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and more.
… lots more.
Republicans flipped 21 chambers in 2010.
In 2020, they flipped … three.
Don’t get me wrong: A GOP trifecta in New Hampshire is a Bad Thing.
And this means Republicans get to re-gerrymander that state Senate (and the House, but with 400 seats, that chamber is always a bit of a crapshoot, honestly).
But federally, this gives the GOP complete control over drawing a whole two congressional districts.
The bad news from Election 2020 isn’t what Republicans won.
It’s what Republicans successfully defended.
I wrote previously in this space about how the next round of redistricting could shake out for Democrats, depending on the level of success they had in flipping GOP-held chambers this week.
Before Nov. 3, Republicans had complete control over the drawing of anywhere from 37% to 45% of all congressional districts nationwide.
Democrats would control the drawing of just 10% to 11%.
The remaining districts would be drawn via redistricting commissions (with varying degrees of independence), compromises reached in states with divided governments, and/or the courts (when some of those divided governments inevitably deadlock).
Tuesday’s election results create a grave risk of another decade of minority rule by the GOP both in Congress and in statehouses nationwide.
But there’s something else at play in the upcoming round of redistricting that wasn’t a factor in 2011.
Back then, many new maps in southern states were subject to the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act.
… a requirement the U.S. Supreme Court killed in Shelby County v. Holder back in 2013.
This ruling also paved the way for a new wave of voter suppression laws, the repercussions of which we’re still dealing with as I type, as votes are still being counted in places like Georgia and Arizona.
Republicans ousted at least one Democratic incumbent on the state Supreme Court and lead in two uncalled races where absentee and provisional ballots will decide whether Democrats majority stays at 6-1 or narrows to 5-2 (or even 4-3).
This matters because state courts curtailed the GOP's gerrymanders last year.
While many mail ballots that lean heavily Democratic are yet to be counted, Democratsare unlikely to win either chamber even if they win more votes statewide—which is precisely what happenedin 2018 and 2012.
However, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf may block Republican legislators from passing an extreme congressional gerrymander.
Governor: Republican (up in 2022)
House: Republican hold
Senate: Republican hold
I mentioned in this space last week that Republicans were pumping tons of late cash into these state House races, and WOW did that effort pay off.
Texas is arguably the most important state for Republican congressional gerrymandering, and Democrats failed to make the big gains needed to flip the state House to break the GOP’s trifecta control of the state.
But wait, it gets worse!
Democrats also failed to lay the groundwork for striking down gerrymanders later this decade after Republicans swept all four seats up this year to maintain their 9-0 state Supreme Court majority.
This round of redistricting might not be as bad for Democrats as the last round, but it’s not shaping up to be much better.
And depending on SCOTUS interference, it could arguably be worse.
Okay, one more piece of lousy news before I remind you (… and myself) that last night wasn’t a total disaster.
This list is in no way exhaustive—feel free to hit me up with other cool Democratic state legislative first you know of!
So, after a decade of trying to slog their way back to majorities in legislative chambers designed specifically to preserve GOP control, Democrats came up short in the most consequential election of the decade.
I’ve already discussed why this is bad for redistricting purposes, but it sucks for other important reasons, too.
Without a majority in the U.S. Senate, Democrats won’t be able to rebalance the court to counter the seats stolen by the GOP.
If the new SCOTUS erodes or overturns Roe v. Wade, it will fall to states to protect women’s access to full reproductive healthcare and the right to obtain an abortion.
Are GOP-controlled legislatures going to safeguard that right?
Not bloody likely.
Or try this on for size:
Fast forward to late January 2021. Joe Biden has just taken office.
Some of his first acts as president involve undoing Trump’s numerous terrible executive orders and replacing those regressive, racist, anti-environmental, anti-equality, etc. measures with his own—many reinstating EOs from the Obama era, others implementing his own forward-looking policies.
In statehouses across the country, Republican-controlled legislatures are just starting their sessions.
And one of their first orders of business is to do everything they can think of to stymie President Biden’s efforts to undo the damage wrought by Trump.
They’ll pass laws specifically designed to thwart policies set forth in the EOs.
They’ll command their state attorneys general to sue the Biden administration over policies they don’t like.
They’ll blame him for governing challenges resulting from their own or Trump’s mismanagement of everything from the coronavirus pandemic to state budgets.
And then of course they’ll also draw legislative districts that preserve their own majorities and congressional districts that erode Democratic power.
I have one wish for an incoming Biden administration:
Don’t make Obama’s mistake of neglecting state legislative politics and elections.
The cost to Biden’s own policy priorities would be high.
The cost to the future of Biden’s party is much, much higher.