With independent political handicappers revising upwards the likelihood of Joe Biden winning the presidency and Democratic gains in the Senate and House in recent days, there is now a reasonable chance that we may be looking at a major landslide up and down the ballot in two weeks’ time.
Which would mean all the things we all know about: A Biden presidency with his party in charge of the Senate and with an expanded majority in the House.
But it might well also mean something else: A reversal of a decade’s worth of Republican dominance at the state legislative level at an absolutely critical moment – the decennial redrawing of state legislative and congressional district lines that can determine a party’s national fate for a decade or more.
Don’t believe me? Think I am exaggerating about the importance of control of state legislatures?
All we need to do is go back to the last time we were in this situation: The 2010 election.
That election, like this one, was the final election before the decennial reapportionment and redistricting of the nation’s congressional and legislative lines that follows the Census count. (“Reapportionment” just means the reallocation of the country’s 435 House districts based on the new population estimates, with some states that grew faster gaining seats and other states that grew slower losing them. “Redistricting” is the actual process of drawing new lines.)
And it was a very good election for Republicans. The party gained 63 House seat (and retook the majority in the chamber) as well as seven Senate seats and six governor’s mansions. (The election was largely a referendum on President Barack Obama’s first two years in office – and total Democratic control in Washington.)
What many people missed at the time was that one of the most important things that happened in that election was a massive amount of movement to Republicans at the state legislative level. In total, Republicans took control of the majority in 13 legislative chambers around the country – a massive shift that gave them a HUGE upper hand in the decennial redistricting process.
That edge allowed them to not only draw congressional lines that suited their side, but also state legislative lines that ensured they remained in control of their newly won chambers for, well, as long as possible.
While Democrats eventually overcame the Republican redraws at the congressional level – with a massive assist from President Donald Trump’s poor performance in his first two years in office! – the GOP dominance at the state legislative level has not waned.
As the National Conference on State Legislatures noted recently:
“Going into the election, of the nation’s 7,383 legislators, 3820 (52%) are Republicans; 3,436 (47%) are Democrats, 82 (including all 49 Senators in Nebraska) are either independents or from another party, and 45 seats are vacant. Democrats have not held a majority of seats in the nation’s legislatures since the 2010 election, when Republicans took the lead.”
At present, there are 98 state legislative bodies in the country. (Two for every state but Nebraska, which has a single unicameral and ostensibly nonpartisan legislative body.) Of those 98, 59 are held by Republicans 39 by Democrats. That’s roughly a 60-40 split in favor of Republicans.
Republicans control both the state House and state Senate (as well as the governor’s office) in many of the states where population has boomed over the last decade and will, therefore, be adding congressional seats before the 2022 election. That includes Florida (Republicans have a 6-seat edge in the state Senate and a 27-seat edge in the state House) and Texas (R+8 in state Senate, R+18 in the state House.)
While Democrats may not gain control of the state legislatures in either of those two states, the broader picture is decidedly in their favor. Louis Jacobson, writing for the Cook Political Report, assessed the state legislative fight this way over the summer:
“At this point for the 2020 cycle, we rate 18 chambers as competitive – slightly more than the 17 we saw as competitive in our final handicapping prior to the 2018 election. Ominously for Republicans, the GOP holds 13 of the vulnerable chambers on our list, compared to just five for the Democrats. This suggests that the Democrats are positioned to net at least a few chambers this fall.”
What we know for sure is that state legislative races – even more than House races – are heavily affected by the national political environment. Because many people have little to know idea who their state legislature is, they tend to just vote for whichever party they feel better about or, in these times, which party they feels less worse about.
Which means that if we are really looking at a landslide at the national level for Democrats, the wave will crash hardest – and with the most impact – at the state legislative level. And if it does, that could mean Republicans are suddenly on the opposite end of the stick they used to great advantage in the wake of the 2010 election – and will be for the next decade.