Republicans Win Most Legislative Seats in Generations

 

 

Photo by Darin ten Bruggencate
Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Republicans won smashing victories in state legislatures yesterday, capturing an outright majority of the nation's legislative seats and the largest majority for the party since 1928.

As of noon Eastern Time, Republicans had taken about 18 legislative chambers from Democrats, with more statehouses hanging in the balance. Democrats hadn't picked up a single chamber from Republicans. So Republicans will have the upper hand when it comes to shaping state policy in the coming years. They'll also be in charge in most states as policymakers redraw legislative and congressional district lines next year.

In historical terms, the most dramatic wins for the Republicans were in the South. As recently as 20 years ago, long after the region had begun voting Republican in presidential elections, Democrats held every Southern legislative chamber. After last night, Republicans will control a majority of the region's legislative chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. (Also see Stateline 's coverage of the  governors' races and key ballot measures .)

The GOP took both the North Carolina Senate and North Carolina House from the Democrats, winning the Senate for the first time since 1870. The party won both houses of the Alabama Legislature from the Democrats, which will also give the Republicans control there for the first time since Reconstruction. In Oklahoma, Republicans retained their control of the Legislature, which, coupled with their win in the governor's race, will give the GOP complete control of state government for the first time ever. In Tennessee the story was similar: Republicans won the governorship and solidified their control of the Legislature, putting them fully in charge of the state for the first time since Reconstruction. 

Midwest reversal

Despite the history in the South, the GOP's Midwest wins may end up being most consequential. Republicans will control both houses of the legislature in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. In all five states, Democrats entered the election with control of the lower house. In Wisconsin, they'd had the Senate, too. All those states also will have Republican governors come January, giving the party sizable opportunities to implement policy. 

Unlike in the South, the Republican wins in the Midwest reversed very recent history. Nationally, Democrats gained legislative seats in 2004, 2006 and 2008. In 2006 and 2008, the party had won 14 legislative chambers from Republicans and pulled into ties in two others that previously had been Republican-held. In the Midwest and elsewhere, most of those chambers have fallen back into Republican hands.

No reversal was as dramatic as the one in New Hampshire. Democrats' shocking wins there in 2006 looked at the time like the culmination of a generations-long realignment away from the Republicans in the Northeast. That year, the Democrats won every major office in the state. The realignment lasted only four years, as Republicans won back both houses of the legislature, making a net gain of 100 or more seats in the state's 400-member House of Representatives.

Republicans also picked up the Montana House, both houses of the Minnesota Legislature and both houses of the Maine Legislature. Maine joined Wisconsin in going from complete Democratic control of state government, including the legislature and the governorship, to complete Republican control. The hotly contested New York Senate remains up in the air, as do legislative chambers in Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Besides the Republican gains, another major theme emerging from the elections is unified control of legislatures. Tim Storey, senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures, projects that as few as four to six statehouses will have one party in control of one chamber and the other chamber in the hands of the opposing party. The unified control should make it somewhat easier for states to implement aggressive new policies. In states where Republicans now have the edge, they'll be able to move firmly in a conservative direction.

One of the new legislatures' early tasks will be redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional lines. Due to the Republicans' gains, they'll be in a position in many states to tilt the political playing field in their favor for a decade to come.

Some of the Democratic losses were to be expected. Democrats entered the night with 800 more legislative seats than the Republicans. With 46 states holding elections for 6,115 of the nation's 7,382 seats, Democrats had a lot of turf to defend. In midterm elections, the president's party almost always loses legislative seats. It has happened in all but two midterm elections since 1902. Democrats did hold onto a few of the chambers that won from the Republicans in recent elections, including the Delaware House, the Iowa Senate and the Nevada Senate.

Still, this was no typical midterm rebalancing. From 1956 to 2002 Democrats controlled a majority of the nation's legislative seats. Democrats quickly regained their majorities whenever they lost them. But now Republicans will have their most clear-cut advantage since before the Great Depression.

Democrats suffered because swing voters deserted them in a sour economy, and Republicans took advantage of superior energy and motivation. Storey points out that Republicans' enthusiasm advantage didn't just manifest itself in the form of more GOP voters showing up at the polls. It also meant that there were more Republican candidates on the ballot to begin with. Democrats ran 50 fewer candidates for state legislative seats this year than they did in 2008. Republicans ran 822 more candidates. "They stepped up and challenged every conceivable race that they could," Storey says, "and it's paying off."

 
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