For more than a decade, Democrats have lamented their party’s inability to make inroads in legislative races across the nation, as Republicans use state House and Senate gavels to advance conservative agendas and to lock in majorities over the long term.
But for the first time since the 2010 midterm elections, state Democrats on Tuesday notched serious and substantial wins in previously held Republican territory, reclaiming control in legislatures that they have not held for decades, or even generations.
Democrats stormed to new majorities in the Michigan House and Senate, where they will ally with newly re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) after four years of partisan bickering.
They won control of the Minnesota Senate, where the new majority will join the Democratic-controlled state House and Gov. Tim Walz (D), who also won re-election on Tuesday.
And Democrats claimed to be on a path to the majority in the Pennsylvania state House, on the coattails of Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s (D) runaway victory.
New Democratic governors in Massachusetts and Maryland will join Democratic legislative majorities. The party maintained control in Washington State and Oregon, while votes are still being counted in pitched battles for control of legislatures in Arizona and New Hampshire.
Though every politician swears that the coming election is the most important of our lifetime, it is hard to overstate the cloud under which state-level Democrats have lived since 2010. On a single night, Democrats went from controlling 60 of the nation’s 98 partisan legislative chambers to just 38.
The subsequent redistricting process helped Republicans cement their majority in Congress for the next eight years, but the damage the GOP did to Democratic hopes of returning to power in states was even more pronounced. Democrats had not held more than 41 chambers in any year since what then-President Barack Obama called a “shellacking.”
“In 2010, Democrats lost 21 state legislative chambers in a single night – our wins this cycle are truly unprecedented,” Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told Pluribus News. “Last night was a resounding rejection of the GOP and an embarrassing underperformance by state Republicans. The GOP had everything in their favor.”
“On paper, this election should have been a landslide for Republicans, just like 2018 was a landslide for us,” Post said, referring to midterm elections in which Democrats picked up five legislative chambers. “Instead, the DLCC and state Democrats fought back, and the so-called ‘red wave’ in the states is looking more like a pathetic puddle.”
Tuesday’s results were not an across-the-board success for Democrats. The party lost more ground in Florida, once a swing state that increasingly looks as red as its southern neighbors. Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, pointed to Republican gains in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Carolina as evidence that not all was lost.
“While chamber battles are still playing out across the country, state Republicans defied the odds last night by facing down an onslaught of more than $130 million in national liberal spending and an incredibly challenging political environment and still managed to preserve their hold on an overwhelming majority of state legislatures throughout the country,” Romeo said.
Even with the wins on Tuesday, Democrats have a long way to go. The Solid South, once reliably Democratic, is now a sea of red. So is most of the Mountain West and the Great Plains states, with the exception of Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
And tough times are ahead. Republicans are likely to pick up Louisiana’s governor’s mansion in 2023; no serious Democrat has even filed to run. And Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) will face a spirited challenge from the winner of a large Republican primary field. Both states could become Republican trifectas, in which the GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.
But for the first time in a decade, state Democrats ended an election cycle with a substantial set of victories.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, one state-level Democratic strategist chuckled ruefully.
“You’re actually talking to a relieved Democrat,” the strategist said.