Democrats lost badly at the congressional level in 2014. That, of course, got a lot of coverage. Democrats also took huge losses at the state level. That didn’t get a lot of attention. State legislators get coverage when they do something stupid or illegal (or both). Even so, Democrats losses at the state level are a more profound problem for Democrats than the loss of the Senate.
As one Democratic strategist conceded to me last week, his party is “in a deep hole” at the state level. From 1948-2010, according to our friends at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Democrats had a distinct advantage at the state legislative level. During that 62-year period, but for a couple years when they were tied, Democrats had more members in state legislative office than Republicans. Since 2010, however, Republicans have taken the lead. Today, about 55 percent of all state legislative seats in the country are held by Republicans. That’s the largest share of GOP state legislators since the 1920s. Just 11 states have an all Democratic-controlled legislature, while Republicans have a legislative majority in 30 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Before the 2014 election, Democrats had single-party control (legislature and governor) in 15 states. Post-2014, that number is down to seven.
A continuing realignment in the South from Democratic stronghold to GOP bastion has contributed to GOP gains at the legislative level. In 1992, all 15 southern states (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida) had Democratic-controlled legislatures. Today, they are all Republican but for Kentucky which has split control. It's not just the South however. Since 2012, notes the NCSL, Republicans have picked up seats in every region of the country.
With legislative control comes redistricting control. The more entrenched the GOP majorities become, the harder it will be for Democrats to break out of the minority in either the legislature or at the congressional level. For example, despite the fact that Obama carried the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida in 2012, Democrats are in the minority at the legislative and congressional level. Pennsylvania is probably the most egregious example of this disparity. President Obama carried the state with 52 percent of the vote, but Democrats control just 27 percent of the state’s House seats. There’s not even one Democratic statewide official in Florida, Michigan, or Ohio.
One smart Democratic strategist who tracks legislative campaigns is worried that Democrats are going to have a hard time winning state legislative control in those states before the next round of redistricting in 2020. “Democrats backslid in all of those legislatures in 2014, taking losses the party should be pretty doggone concerned about right now,” writes this source. “If Dems perform extremely well in the presidential cycles of 2016 and 2020, they may earn a seat at the redistricting tables in some of these states, but it's going to be difficult… Democrats can't be expected to win majorities in either chamber of the Florida legislature by 2020. Given the effectiveness of the most recent Wisconsin state legislative gerrymander, majorities seem out of reach there before 2020, too. Ditto for both legislative chambers in Ohio.” As for Pennsylvania, the one bright spot for the Democratic Governors Association in 2014, this strategist concedes that winning back the Pennsylvania House “is a long shot after this year's losses.”
Meanwhile, Texas, which is solidly red, may pick up an additional 3 seats in the next round of redistricting. North Carolina, another state that has slid to GOP control since 2010, is also expected to net a seat. And, while Georgia may indeed be trending into “competitive” territory at the presidential level, there’s no change on the horizon for the state legislature where the GOP controls 66 percent of the state House seats and 68 percent of the state Senate seats.
To be sure, it’s hard to win down-ballot when the top-of-the-ballot is struggling. The sinking fortunes of President Obama obviously dragged down the whole party. Even so, Democrats I’ve talked with across the country agree that the party should spend more time and money on the state races. One top Democratic strategist even suggested the DNC should get out of the federal campaign business all-together and focus exclusively on state-based campaigns. These races aren’t sexy. No one in Network or Cable TV has ever or will ever say “hey, we should probably cover Secretary of State races.” Still, these lowly state-based politicos are also the people who run for Congress and Governor and other offices to which we do pay attention. Lose the down-ballot races and you lose your future talent. More important, if Democrats can’t get a seat at the redistricting table in 2020, they may find themselves locked out of a congressional majority for another 10 years.