The Democrats’ Most Radical Election Victory Was in the States

Their wins could help them secure national victories in the coming years.

State legislators meet at Maine's statehouse.
State legislators meet at Maine's statehouse. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

The Democrats won a majority in the United States House of Representatives on Tuesday, setting up two long years of all-but-assured confrontation with President Donald Trump. The party also pulled out big victories across state legislatures, flipping six chambers, turning others purple, and shoring up its supermajorities in still more.

Under President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party largely neglected state-level races: By 2016, Republicans held roughly two-thirds of the country’s state legislative chambers. In some states, the result was a deep-red legislature governing a purple or blue majority, which set up conflicts. North Carolina had a showdown in 2016 over a local ordinance protecting transgender people, for example. And earlier this year, Arizona’s teachers walked out in protest of the state’s gutting of education funding.

The partisan imbalance in statehouses has also had national ripple effects, in some cases frustrating Democrats’ ability to win nationally. Republicans have used gerrymandering, voter-identification laws, and other voting restrictions to minimize the number of competitive districts around the country and to make it harder for black and Hispanic Americans to vote. Tuesday’s Democratic victories are the party’s first major effort to counteract years of Republican dominance in state capitols, which could help it secure national wins in the coming years.

Over the past two years, Democrats have become obsessed with flipping state legislative seats and chambers across America. New groups, such as the Future Now Fund and Flippable, invested in target states where organizers believed the legislative makeup did not reflect the state’s politics. “We’re spending in state legislative races this year because for too long, only the Kochs have,” said Daniel Squadron, the executive director of the Future Now Fund, before the election. (He was referring to David and Charles Koch, the Republican donors who have spent extensively on grassroots campaigns in favor of Republican candidates across the country.) “The state legislature has been seen as a backwater that isn’t worth the attention or resources or national-party players.”

These groups, along with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or DLCC, invested cash and volunteer resources in states such as Colorado, New York, and Maine, where the Senate chambers flipped from red to blue on Tuesday, and Minnesota, where the same happened in the House. In New Hampshire, another major target state, Democrats captured both the House and the Senate.

Some of these states offered clear cases of a mismatch between Democratic representation at the state and national level: New York and Minnesota both have majority-blue U.S. congressional delegations, meaning most of their senators and representatives are Democrats, and New Hampshire’s U.S. delegation is 100 percent Democratic. But the most hard-fought victories may have come in purple states where chambers didn’t flip but seats did, narrowing Republican majorities. Examples include North Carolina, where, according to the DLCC, Democrats flipped 16 seats across the state House and Senate; Texas, where 14 seats went blue; and Pennsylvania, where Democrats won a total of 19 seats that had been occupied by Republicans. As of Wednesday morning, the DLCC reported that 350 seats had flipped across the country. (The Democrats lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures during Obama’s eight years in office.)

Red-to-blue flips may be most significant in states such as North Carolina and Texas, where Republican legislators have redrawn congressional districts into Rorschach-test shapes that are often specifically designed to limit the electoral influence of racial minorities. They have also pushed voter-roll purges, voter-ID laws, and other voting restrictions that make it difficult for people to vote, or for their ballot to be counted. These measures also often target racial minorities, thus suppressing Democratic turnout.

Just as Republicans’ savvy strategy to take over state legislatures during the Obama years had a ripple effect in national politics, these Democratic seat flips will likely have an impact on national politics in 2020 and beyond. It will be more difficult for voting restrictions to get passed, and for Republicans to push through lopsided redistricting overhauls following the 2020 census. Policies the Obama administration tried and often failed to secure through administrative action and executive orders, like protections for LGBTQ people, now have more of a chance of passing in states. And, of course, the legislative bent of these states will change. After all, many of the policies that most directly affect Americans’ everyday lives don’t come from Washington, D.C., but from their statehouse.