Biggest GOP Gains In Statehouses

Biggest GOP Gains In Statehouses

By Sean Trende - November 3, 2010

Although attention has focused on GOP gains in Congress and Governor's mansions, the worst part of the night for Democrats probably came in state legislative seats. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Democrats had the worst night in state legislative seats since 1928. With races outstanding in New York, Washington and Oregon, Republicans have flipped at least 14 chambers, and have unified control of 25 state legislatures. They have picked up over five hundred state legislative seats, including over 100 in New Hampshire alone.

This hurts Democrats in two ways. First, it wipes out the prospective farm team for future runs for Congress and statewide office.

But more importantly, it allows a party to control the decennial redistricting. Since 1966, all states have redistricted more-or-less together (before 1966 it was done willy-nilly; New Hampshire hadn't changed its lines since 1882).

And since that time, Democrats have controlled the process.

Consider the following chart:

It shows, in each redistricting, the number of seats whose redistricting was completely controlled by one part or the other. States that don't give the legislature the power to redistrict (including, now, California and Florida) are excluded. I also excluded states that had split power, although I included states like Texas and Colorado in 2002, where Democratic minorities had managed to force the issue to the courts, which adopted Democratic plans.

As you can see, during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Democrats controlled redistricting. Most of these seats were in the South, where state legislators deftly drew Congressional boundaries to slow down the Republican advance.

This all changed in 1990. Although Republicans controlled almost no seats in redistricting, Democratic control was reduced by the good GOP gubernatorial year of 1986. These Governors forced compromises where the GOP made advances in redistricting that had been impossible in previous decades.

In addition, a new interpretation of the Voting Rights Act limited the ability of Southern Democrats to gerrymander their states effectively. They tried, mightily, but by 1994, the GOP was riding a wave into control of seats.

So, 2000 saw the smallest disparity between the parties in redistricting in decades. Democrats chose to implement conservative incumbent-protection plans in two of their largest states, Illinois and California. They imposed partisan plans in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and Indiana, but with Illinois and California neutralized, the GOP was able to respond in kind in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, leveling the playing field between the parties for the first time in decades. In 2006 that playing field was tilted toward the GOP, as they engaged in the first non-court-ordered mid-decade redistricting since New York in 1970, undoing Democratic plans in Colorado (later overturned by the state courts), Texas and Georgia.

That balance led to the situation today, when the GOP was able to overtake the Democrats. By having a wave wash ashore in a redistricting year, the GOP controls redistricting in a near-majority of House seats. The Democrats would have control of California, but the state approved a non-partisan redistricting commission to oversee its anticipated 53 seats; Florida had the inverse effect on 26 seats the GOP would otherwise control.

This is a conservative estimate, as well. It assumes the status quo holds in five Governor's races, including Illinois, and in the state legislative races in Oregon, where control of both chambers dangles by a seat. Any advances by the GOP would place even more seats into the "split control" column.

Probably the biggest prize for the GOP was the North Carolina legislature, where Democrats had used convoluted map lines to enshrine Congressional majorities and their own legislative majorities for decades. Unlike most states, North Carolina excludes the governor from the redistricting process. The three conservative Democrats who hung on this year will probably find themselves in much worse seats in the next cycle.

Finally, the GOP will control or have a say in almost all of the states that are gaining or losing seats. Democrats will control Massachusetts, where a Democrat must be eliminated regardless, and perhaps Illinois, which may or may not lose a seat. Meanwhile, Republicans will control over a dozen newly-drawn seats, and chose almost a dozen more seats to be eliminated districts.

Last night's GOP wave devastating for Democrats, but it could not have come at a worse time. If the GOP takes full advantage of this opportunity, it could even expand upon its current Congressional majorities further in 2012.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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