Below the radar of the hard-fought presidential election, Democrats nourish modest hopes of making gains in state legislative races to bring them closer to parity with Republicans. Despite receiving comparatively little attention, the legislative elections could have far-reaching consequences when states reapportion congressional and state legislative districts in 2021 based on the 2020 U.S. census.
States redistrict in various ways — nine of them, including California, the most populous, use independent commissions — but in a large majority of states the legislature draws the lines.
Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections enabled them to draw district lines in 2011 that are still helping the GOP. Democrats denounced these gerrymandered districts and the legislation they produced, but often behaved similarly in the smaller number of states in which they hold a partisan advantage.
Going into next month’s elections, Republicans control both legislative chambers in 29 states compared to 19 for the Democrats. Legislative control is divided in Minnesota, where Republicans hold the Senate and Democrats the House. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, nominally non-partisan but Republican in all but name.
Democrats are outspending Republicans and “are clearly on offense this cycle,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Storey, who has a good track record in forecasting state elections, said the best chances for Democratic pickups of legislative chambers are the Senate in Arizona (whose statehouse is pictured), Minnesota and North Carolina and the House in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Republicans could win the Senate in Colorado and New Hampshire and the House in Minnesota, Storey said.
Politico reports that Democratic operatives see opportunity for legislative pickups in Sun Belt states where rapid demographic change is diluting the GOP’s edge.
Forward Majority, a new Democratic group involved in state races, is spending $6.2 million on 18 races in the growing Sun Belt states of Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona. Republicans are matching them dollar for dollar in Texas and North Carolina, two states in which the 2011 redistrictings have enabled the GOP to maintain legislative control.
In Texas, where Republicans have an 83-67 edge in the House, Democrats are targeting suburban districts left open by GOP retirements. They’re focusing on nine districts carried by then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2018.
In North Carolina, Democrats were helped by a court-mandated legislative reapportionment in 2019 but still face an uphill battle in next month’s election. They are targeting districts around Charlotte and the Research Triangle. (Republicans hold a six-seat advantage in the North Carolina House and a five-seat edge in the Senate.) Legislative control is crucial in the Tar Heel State because the Republican legislature eliminated the Democratic governor’s role in redistricting.
Overall, there are 7,383 legislative seats in the United States. Republicans hold 3,820 (52%) of these to Democrats’ 3,436 (47%). Another 127 seats are held by independents, other parties or are currently vacant.
President Barack Obama had various achievements, notably the Affordable Care Act, but he was unsuccessful in bolstering Democratic fortunes in the states. Republicans picked up more than 900 state legislative seats during the Obama years, with the biggest gains occurring in 2010. Democrats have been playing catch-up ever since.
Helped by big wins in 2018, Democrats have drawn nearly even in governorships: Republicans have 26 to Democrats’ 24. Control of governorships will also impact 2021 redistricting as these state chief executives have veto power over all maps in all but five states where the legislature does the redistricting.
Only 11 states choose governors this year, and little change is expected in partisan composition. Incumbents -- six Republicans and three Democrats -- are running in nine of these states, and all are well ahead in the averages of polls by RealClearPolitics.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah is retiring, but the GOP has no worries in this solidly red state. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox leads University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, the Democratic nominee, by more than 25 percentage points in the only two polls taken of the contest.
Montana is the only state in which the governorship could change partisan hands, according to the polls. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is termed out and running for the U.S. Senate. Vying to replace him are the Democratic lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney, and Republican Greg Gianforte, Montana’s only congressman, who is seeking the governorship for a second time.
The race is rated a tossup by the Cook Political Report, but Gianforte has led in every poll.
The gubernatorial elections, as few as they are, illustrate an unusual feature of U.S. politics during this pandemic year. As the coronavirus took hold, governors became involved in the measures used to combat it, including policies of social distancing and mask-wearing and the closing of public areas and restaurants.
In the process of doing this, many governors briefed the public on developments, establishing a strong connection with voters. A survey of 22,000 voters in all 50 states earlier this year found that most of them believed their governor was doing a better job of dealing with COVID-19 than President Trump.
Governors have higher favorability ratings than the president in all the states that will elect governors next month. That advantage is particularly conspicuous in the two states — New Hampshire and North Carolina — that are electing governors and are also battlegrounds in the presidential election.
In the Granite State, where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a nine-point lead over Trump, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is ahead of Democrat Dan Feltes by more than 20 points, according to the RCP average of polls.
In North Carolina, where the presidential race and a U.S. Senate contest are widely viewed as toss-ups, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper holds a 10.1-percentage-point lead over Republican Dan Forest in the RCP polling average.
Before the pandemic, Sununu and Cooper were considered possibly endangered incumbents.
Except in runaway races, don’t expect to know many outcomes the night of the election, Nov. 3.
In past elections, Storey and Wendy Underhill of NCSL quickly rounded up the state reports, enabling State Net Capitol Journal to report and analyze results the week after the election. But many states do not permit processing of ballots before Election Day. Combine this arguably outmoded rule with the expected flood of mail-in ballots from voters who don’t want to risk in-person voting and you have a recipe for a slow-count election in which the results of close races may not be known for weeks.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who’s extensively studied how people vote and tracks voting for the United States Elections Project, predicts that as many as 80 million Americans may vote by mail. He thinks that Florida, the butt of many jokes for its confused counting in the 2000 presidential election, may be the vote-counting star of this election. The Sunshine State has invested in modern vote-tabulating technology and crucially allows officials to start counting mail votes 22 days before election.
(Biden leads Trump by 1.4 points in the RCP average for Florida, but these are polls, not voting results. Releasing results before Election Day is a felony.)
“If the election is decisive enough, we should be able to call Florida on election night,” McDonald said. How’s that for a spoiler alert?