Democrats Make Gains in Statehouses, but Republicans Still Dominate

After the Republicans swept to power in state legislatures across the country in 2010, the situation for state-level Democrats couldn't get much worse. The Grand Old Party won control of 21 house and senate chambers, and gained supermajorities in several states. Progressive and independent-leaning states like Maine and Minnesota were suddenly dominated by conservative legislators. Democrats had little power to stop the wave of cuts to public education, health care, and other social services that the new Tea Party lawmakers pushed for—decisions with long-term costs, particularly to marginalized populations. And when the new Census results came in, it was those Republican majorities that redrew political districts to favor their own party.

In spite of partisan redistricting, Democrats fared much better in the states this year—though not nearly as well as the party did in federal elections. Democrats retook seven chambers, including both house and senate in Minnesota and Maine (where both sides spent record amounts). In California, where it takes a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, Democrats finally have the numbers to bring some stability to the state's constant budget crises. While California got a Democratic supermajority, 2012 brought an end to GOP supermajorities in Florida, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Texas. 

In spite of those gains, Republicans still dominate state-level politics. They may have lost supermajorities in four states, but they gained supermajorities in four others—with a possible fifth in Georgia hinging on which party an independent house member chooses to caucus with. Overall, while Republicans lost control of seven chambers, they picked up four others. 

The results show a significant gap between state and local politics. While Missouri voters decided—by a surprisingly emphatic 16-point margin—to send Democrat Claire McCaskill back to the U.S. Senate, they also gave a state Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. Florida and Wisconsin tell similar stories: Elections to federal office went the Democrats' way, while state races tilted Republican.

A lot of this can be chalked up to redistricting. The GOP majorities around the country did their utmost to create maps unfavorable to Democrat candidates at both the state and congressional level. That means that state legislatures may be less representative of the people's political views than governors, senators, and other officials elected statewide. Democrats largely held on to governor's mansions across the country; of the 11 governors races, Democrats won six while Republicans only picked up North Carolina (in the wake of a scandal-plagued Democratic governor), giving them a total of four wins. (The outcome of Washington State's gubernatorial race is still up in the air.)

Next year, as state legislatures tackle the same issues of budgets, education and healthcare, it's hard to know whether they'll be able to get away with the same hardline policies they implemented two years ago. But there are some signs that they won't. On Monday, I highlighted four outrageous Republican incumbents—two of whom defended slavery, one who wanted to expel all Muslims, and a fourth who believes child hunger to be a myth because some people are obese. All four lost their election bids Tuesday.

That's gotta give you some hope.

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