Political News

Democrats made massive state-level gains in the midterms

Posted November 9, 2018 5:04 p.m. EST

— Democrats made massive gains in statehouses in Tuesday's midterm elections, reversing an imbalance that had grown under former President Barack Obama's tenure and given Republicans much more power at the state level.

Though ballots are still being counted in some states and recounts are possible in close races, Democrats appear on track for a net gain of about 300 state legislative seats.

The party also claimed seven governors' offices that had been in Republican hands, winning races in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

The victories got little national attention but have major implications for 2020's presidential election and for the next decade in Congress. Most state legislatures draw district lines, an authority Republicans used to cement their House majority for the last eight years.

The wins mean Democrats now control the governorships of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- the three "blue wall" states that delivered Donald Trump the presidency in 2016.

"Not only does this have huge implications for the people of the Midwest, but it also is a major game-changer looking ahead to 2020's presidential race," said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association who oversaw the party's gubernatorial campaign efforts this year.

Inslee's DGA had launched an "Unrig the Map" project aimed at giving Democrats a voice -- or at least a veto -- in the redistricting process. It targeted seven states, three with sitting Democratic governors (Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania) and four with GOP governors (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Maine), where the GOP has an 18-seat advantage in congressional representation. Democrats won all seven.

Democrats also cut deeply into Republicans' more than three-to-one lead in "trifectas" -- states where one party controls the governor's office and both branches of the legislature.

Before the election, Republicans had 25 trifectas and Democrats had just eight, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

But after Tuesday's election, Democrats are projected to add six more: Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and New York. That brings their total to 14.

Republicans, meanwhile, gained a trifecta in Alaska but saw theirs broken up in Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

Democrats also took control of a total of seven legislative bodies -- New Hampshire's House and Senate, Colorado's Senate, Connecticut's Senate, Maine's Senate, New York's Senate and Minnesota's House.

Democratic strategists and activists spent two years urging the party's donors and supporters to pay more attention to statehouses. Democrats had watched as Republicans used their state-level influence to weaken labor unions, impose strict voting laws and draw district maps that protected their majorities. The culmination of that years-long project came into view after Democrats realized that, without the White House, they'd lost their grips on levers of power at the federal and state level.

The party's base paid much more attention to state races over the last two years, said Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. She said the party raised and spent $35 million in the 2018 election cycle on statehouse races -- more than double its $16 million raised and spent in the 2016 cycle.

Post said the DLCC is setting a budget goal of $50 million in the 2020 election cycle. She identified Pennsylvania's House and Senate as top Democratic targets in 2020, as well as Michigan's House, Minnesota's Senate, Iowa's House and North Carolina's House. Arizona's legislature could be a target, too, but midterm ballots are still being counted there, so the legislature's makeup is not yet fully clear.

A strategic goal in 2020, Post said, is improving the staffing for state legislative campaigns -- including deploying field organizers earlier. Virginia's House, where the GOP holds a one-seat majority, will be an early test in 2019, she said.

"Having strong campaign staff around these candidates is something we need to strengthen," she said.

Catherine Vaughan, the CEO and co-founder of Flippable, a political action committee launched after the 2016 election to help Democrats take control of closely divided state legislative chambers, said her group raised $2.1 million over the 2018 cycle -- but that donors still need to shift their eyes from congressional races to statehouses.

"I still don't think we're spending money in a smart way. I think that people get that states are important now, but they're not really putting their money where their mouth is," she said of Democrats broadly.

"I think donors need to have a better investment strategy going forward. They need to think about, what are the greatest points of leverage where their dollars can go further?"