Leading up to Election Day, Democrats touted their chances of winning back key seats in Republican-held state legislatures around the country. Recapturing territory in states such as Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania could help the party lock in political power for a decade. If Democrats achieved this in enough districts, they could have averted their fate after the 2010 tea party wave.
"Democrats didn't focus on those state legislative races to the extent that we should have in 2010," former attorney general Eric Holder, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said last week during a Washington Post Live event. "As a result, the 2011 redistricting went well for the Republicans and led to the gerrymandering that we have seen, and that has affected our politics over the course of this last decade. I think Democrats are focusing now on state-level races."
This week, they blew it. Instead of cementing congressional control for a decade, Democrats' majority is now at future risk.
In an era of Washington gridlock, what happens in state legislatures matters more than ever. A policy adopted today in Sacramento or Austin or Albany can become a national standard tomorrow. Initiatives such as welfare reform, health-care reform and criminal justice reform sometimes originate in state capitals. Every decade, state legislatures get a say in federal policymaking in another way: Following each census, population counts will mean reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, with states redrawing political boundaries. In most states, those boundaries are drawn by state legislatures.
Ten years ago, the midterm wave that swept Republicans to power in the House gave the GOP an advantage in state legislatures, too. That election year eventually cost Democrats control of 20 legislative chambers across the country.
At the beginning of the previous redistricting cycle, in which legislators drew new political boundaries, Republicans controlled the ability to draw 198 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats controlled just 51 seats; 95 were drawn with input from both sides, 84 were drawn in states where nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions controlled the process, and seven more states sent only one at-large member to Congress.
Legislators in charge of the mapmaking process used their power in states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania, allowing the GOP to control certain House seats, even if Democrats won more statewide votes overall: In 2018, Democrats won just three of Wisconsin's eight U.S. House seats, even though their candidates carried almost 200,000 more votes than did Republicans. Texas Democratic House candidates won around 47 percent of the vote that year, but they carried only 13 of 36 seats, about 36 percent.
Democrats accused Republicans of rampant gerrymandering, although they were notably silent on maps that disproportionately favored their side in blue states.
Red-state maps meant Democrats were competing on an uneven playing field through much of the last decade. Even after the 2018 midterm Democratic wave, Republicans maintained most of their state-legislature gains from 2010. In states such as Virginia, Nevada and Maine, Democrats have clawed back power, but they remain in the gerrymandered minority in many states that send larger delegations to the House.
This year, in the midst of a pandemic and with an unpopular president at the top of the GOP ticket, Democrats had high hopes those seats would flip. Groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Emily's List and Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC, spent millions of dollars targeting legislative races in Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Republicans spent millions defending their turf. If Democrats could flip just a few seats, they would win control of one or both legislative chambers, giving themselves at least a seat at the table when the new round of maps were drawn.
It didn't happen. Republicans maintained control of both legislative chambers in all three of those states. They appear to have won control of both the New Hampshire House and Senate, chambers currently run by Democrats.
Democrats failed in key suburban districts in key states across the country, Austin Chambers, head of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told reporters on Wednesday, describing Election Day as "an absolutely great night for state Republicans and an absolutely miserable night for state Democrats."
"We were going to have an offensive target map and knew it was going to be tough to overcome gerrymandered districts and Republican spending," DLCC spokeswoman Christina Polizzi said in an email. "Legislative Republicans won because Donald Trump over performed. It is easy to win in rigged districts."
As the new redistricting cycle begins after the Census Bureau delivers its formal population report, Republicans will control the mapmaking process for 175 seats in the U.S. House, and Democrats will control 47 district boundaries. In the intervening decade, five states have implemented new commissions to draw lines, giving independent panels control of 161 seats. The two parties will have to compromise on 45 seats, and seven states will send only one at-large member to Congress.
Democrats still control the House of Representatives after Tuesday's elections, but Republicans will have the chance to draw new boundaries that threaten some Democratic incumbents: The GOP needs to add only a few thousand new conservative voters to the districts of Democrats such as Rep. Colin Allred, in Dallas's suburbs, or Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who represents the Houston area in a seat once held by George H.W. Bush, to imperil their 2022 chances.
The redistricting process was once the domain of backroom deals, in which legislators would punish their enemies and protect their allies through favorable district lines. It's become a science, overseen by expert cartographers and demographers who use block-by-block population data to craft the perfect maps. Packing one party's voters into a district their candidate will win overwhelmingly deprives that party of the chance to win several neighboring districts; cracking a party's votes between several districts dilutes its chances of competing for any one of those seats.
And this cycle, the partisan influence on new district lines is likely to be even more substantial than a decade ago. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that redistricting with the intent of benefiting one party over another is a political question, not a judicial one. In other words: when it's time to gerrymander, have at it - so long as you can demonstrate a political, rather than a racial, bias. The legal arguments that Democrats once used to strike down gerrymandered lines are no longer an option in many states.
For all the millions spent, for all the attention Democrats focused on nefarious gerrymandering practices, they changed little this year and weren't able to turn the tables on Republicans. Democrats had the chance to safeguard their control of the House for a decade to come. They squandered it.
Wilson is a correspondent at the Hill and an instructor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.