Dems defy historical trends in state legislative elections

Democrats’ down-ballot performance was stunning in midterm contests that are typically brutal for a president’s party
The Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Democrats won control of four state legislative chambers in last month’s elections and held losses to a minimum in other states, a stunning defiance of historical trends that are typically brutal for a president’s party in midterm contests.

Results from the more than 6,200 state legislative seats up for election last month show Republicans gaining a net of just 27 seats, while Democrats lost 23 total seats across the country. Election officials are still finalizing close vote totals in 63 districts where candidates are running virtually neck and neck.

Even if all of the yet-to-be-called races break in favor of Republicans, the results will amount to one of the best performances by a president’s party in the last century.

Only twice in the past 100 years — in 2002 under George W. Bush and 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt — has a president’s party gained seats. In 1990, Republicans under President George H.W. Bush lost only 18 seats.

And for the first time since Roosevelt’s Democrats did so well in 1934, the president’s party did not lose control of a single state legislative chamber. Instead, Democrats regained control of the Michigan House and Senate, the Minnesota state Senate, and the Pennsylvania state House.

“We had the best midterm performance in modern history,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Our folks were really prepared to tell the stories of what they were doing in state legislatures and what Republicans would not do.”

A president’s party usually fares much worse in midterm elections. Going back to Warren Harding’s administration, the president’s party has lost an average of 341 state legislative seats during the first two years of an administration.

Former President Donald Trump’s Republicans lost 349 seats over the course of his first two years in office. Former President Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 702 seats in his first two years.

Party operatives and observers pointed to a handful of factors contributing to the surprising results: A Republican red wave that failed to materialize in races for Congress also dribbled ashore in state legislative contests; partisan gerrymandering left fewer competitive districts on the playing field; and Republican gains over the last decade have left even fewer potentially vulnerable Democrats for the GOP to target.

“One reason that the president’s party often does so badly in a midterm is that it typically performs so well in the prior election, with the president’s coattails sweeping allies to victory in many competitive districts,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist who studies state legislatures at the University of California-San Diego. “But in 2020, Democrats did very poorly, losing a dozen seats in Congress and nearly 200 across the states. This meant that they had fewer weak incumbents and tight districts to defend in 2022.”

If President Biden’s coattails were not long enough to sweep Democrats into power in 2020, several Democratic candidates this year won by margins sufficient to help their allies down the ballot.

None had a greater impact than Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (D), who easily defeated a far-right Republican rival. Democrats added 14 seats in the state House in what both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge was a surprisingly strong result.

The midterm election results show several states retreating further into partisan corners. Republicans made some of their biggest gains in red states such as Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and West Virginia, adding to already-large majorities in states where the GOP controlled the redistricting process.

Democrats made their largest gains in states including California, Vermont, Illinois and Maryland, some of the bluest states in the nation.

“I think this performance speaks to how calcified the country is becoming in its voting patterns and behavior, and the calcification is reaching down the ballot into state legislative races,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina. “Both parties have sufficiently sorted themselves, the voters have sufficiently sorted themselves and are party loyalists, and thus the districts are behaving as expected if you use past election performances to see where things may go.”

Republicans, who still control well over half the legislative chambers in the nation, pointed to some of their own gains, including in blue states such as New York and Oregon. In Montana, Republicans hold a supermajority in the legislature for the first time since 1975. Florida’s state House has more Republicans than at any other time in its history.

But in a nod to the shrinking field of competitive seats, Dee Duncan, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee, said just a handful of winners on both sides of the aisle managed to capture districts carried by the other party’s presidential candidate.

According to Duncan’s calculations, 238 Republicans won districts Biden carried in 2020, and 130 Democrats won districts that voted for Trump.

“This cycle brought a lot of success, but it also showed us just how much harder it will be for us to hold our razor-thin majorities in key battleground states going forward,” Duncan wrote in a memo to donors that was obtained by Pluribus News. “It will no longer be enough to compete against our own fundraising records. We need to set the bar higher and start comparing ourselves against the constellation of national liberal outside groups that drastically outspent us this year.”