Democrats Gain in State Elections

Democrats Gain in State Elections
Geoff Forest/The Concord Monitor via AP, Pool
Democrats Gain in State Elections
Geoff Forest/The Concord Monitor via AP, Pool
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The following first appeared on the State Net Capitol Journal website.

Buoyed by the votes of suburban women and independents, Democrats gained hard-won ground in the nation’s statehouses in Tuesday’s midterm election.

Democrats won seven governorships and six legislative chambers previously held by Republicans. They also took outright control of the New York Senate, which has been run by a Republican-dominated coalition despite a technical Democratic majority.

These outcomes were widely seen as a negative referendum on President Trump, but Democratic gains were significantly less than Republicans posted in two midterm elections when Barack Obama was president.

“It was a good night for the Democrats, but it was not a banner night,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst with the National Conference of State Legislators.

Democrats lost 24 chambers in the 2010 election, Storey noted. On average, 12 chambers have changed party hands in every two-year election cycle back to 1900.

The legislative chambers won by the Democrats on Tuesday include the senates in Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, the House in Minnesota and both chambers in New Hampshire.

The seven states in which Democratic governors will replace Republicans are Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin. These were open seats except for Illinois, where billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker routed Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers narrowly ousted Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Four of the seven new Democratic governors are women: Janet Mills in Maine, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Laura Kelly in Kansas and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico.

Kelly’s win over Kris Kobach in normally Republican Kansas disappointed anti-immigration conservatives. Like Trump, whom he embraced during the campaign, Kobach believes the United States is seriously endangered by illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America.

“Kansas is dead to me,” tweeted conservative commentator Ann Coulter after learning of Kobach’s defeat.

Republicans took solace Tuesday at holding on to the governorships in the key states of Ohio and Florida, albeit narrowly in the Sunshine State.

They also won the governorship in Alaska, where Republican Mike Dunleavy defeated Democrat Mark Begich after independent Gov. Bill Walker withdrew. In addition, the GOP won the Alaska House, which had an opposite situation to the New York Senate: a technical Republican majority in which control was exercised by a Democratic-leaning coalition.

History was reaffirmed by the big picture of the election, in which Democrats won the House of Representatives. Democrats gained at least 30 seats and hold a 225-200 lead with 10 seats undecided. In 28 of the last 30 midterm elections, the party out of power in the White House has gained in congressional and state elections.

But the U.S. Senate went against the grain. Republicans picked up three seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. The GOP now holds a 52-46 majority and could wind up with 53 or 54 senators.

In Arizona, Senate candidates Martha McSally (R) and Kyrsten Sinema (D) are in a virtual dead heat with many precincts still uncounted. In Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) faces Mike Espy (D) in a Nov. 27 runoff.

The brightest spots for Democrats were the gubernatorial races. Going into the election, Republicans had a 34-15 edge with one independent. The seven Democratic victories left the GOP with a narrower 27-23 edge.

Republicans still hold an overwhelming lead of 61-37 in state legislative chambers. Unicameral Nebraska is nominally non-partisan but Republican in all but name.

Overall, there are several positive takeaways from the 2018 elections. One is voter turnout, which soared above 100 million for the first time in a midterm election. At least 113 million Americans cast ballots.

Diversity was a hallmark of the election, which sent more women than ever before to the U.S. House and state legislatures. Kansas and New Mexico sent Native American women to the House. Muslim women were elected to the chamber in Michigan and Minnesota. All were firsts, and all were Democrats.

Another first occurred in Colorado where Democrat Jared Polis, a wealthy congressman, became the first openly gay man elected governor in any state.

The election was also a reminder that governors who are perceived by voters as effective can win in politically unfriendly states even in an era of hyper-partisanship. Govs. Charles Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Phil Scott of Vermont, moderate Republicans in Democratic bastions, were reelected handily. So was Gov. Tom Wolf, a centrist Democrat, in Pennsylvania.

Trump became president because he won states — notably Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that normally vote Democratic in presidential elections. All three now have Democratic governors and a base from which to build in 2020.

The presidency aside, the outcome of the 2020 elections will have an impact when states redraw legislative and congressional districts in 2021. District maps can determine district outcomes. The lines drawn by Republican legislators in 2011 following their 2010 victories saved many GOP legislators and House members from defeat Tuesday.

Two issues dominated this year’s campaign. One was the alleged menace of illegal immigration, epitomized by a Central American caravan of immigrants whom Trump demonized as “invaders” even though they are hundreds of miles away from the U.S-Mexican border. Many Republican candidates took up this theme, and many Democrats avoided the issue as best they could.

The other issue was health care, a turnaround issue that helped Democrats. In 2010, when the Affordable Care Act had been passed but was not yet operative, Republicans made political hay with promises to repeal it.

But the ACA has become popular, most of all because it guarantees coverage to Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. A Trump executive order permitting state health insurance plans that do not cover these conditions put Republicans on the defensive throughout the 2018 campaign.

The ACA is now safe with Democrats in control of the House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the election that Republicans would not try again to repeal Obamacare.

Voters in Tuesday’s election weighed in favorably on Medicaid expansion, which the ACA has made possible. Ballot measures to expand the program were approved by voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, all reliably Republican states.

In addition, Gov.-elect Kelly in Kansas promised during her campaign to expand Medicaid. Legislation to do so was previously approved by the Kansas Legislature but vetoed by a Republican governor. Similarly, in Maine, Gov.-elect Mills has said she will implement Medicaid expansion. Voters approved expansion in 2017 but its implementation was blocked by outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

President Trump’s performance in the 2018 elections was mixed. On the one hand he deserves much credit for the high voter turnout, as his fiery rhetoric motivated supporters and critics alike. On the other, his divisive denunciations of immigrants, the media and anyone who disagrees with him alienated suburban and educated women and political independents, according to several surveys.

Trump campaigned more frequently and vigorously than Obama did in 2010 and produced results — in both directions. Democrats said that intense dislike of Trump was a principle factor in helping them win so many suburban districts and control of the House.

But Trump also played a major role in the defeat of Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, states he carried in 2016. If Trump is disliked in the cities and suburbia, he remains popular in rural America, as the results Tuesday demonstrated.

A decade ago a Texas journalist named Jim Bishop wrote a book called “The Big Sort,” which described how Americans were dividing into like-minded states and communities that had little tolerance for the other side.

The polarization that Bishop deplored played out with a vengeance in the 2018 election. For the first time in 104 years, said Storey, the lower and upper chambers of every state except Minnesota will be controlled by the same party.

The division of our country into red states and blue states that swear at Trump or by him augurs more polarization in the next two years.

But at a time that gridlock looms in Washington between a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate, states have an opportunity to set the national agenda.

Storey observed that environmental legislation sought by the Democrats in New York state and education policy changes proposed by the Democrats in Colorado had been blocked in recent sessions by Republican opposition.

Democrats will have no partisan barrier to inaction in these states now that they control all the levers of power. Nor will Republicans in the 23 states in which they will hold the governorship and both legislative chambers.

As a result of the 2018 election, America’s representatives will now test the advantages and limitations of political polarization.

Lou Cannon is editorial adviser and columnist for State Net Capitol Journal, a Lexis-Nexis publication. He previously worked for The Washington Post and is author of "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime."

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