TO CHILL the spine of any Democratic politico, simply mention 2010. Most of them remember the catastrophic losses in the House of Representatives in the year of the Tea Party. Democrats lost 63 seats, their majority and their chance to enact meaningful policy after just two of Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Many forget the carnage in the states, where Democrats lost 568 seats in state Houses, 136 seats in state Senates and six governorships (see chart 1). Before the 2010 elections, Republican “trifectas”—control over the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature—were present in just nine states. Afterwards the party had complete control in 21 states. Republicans now have trifectas in 25 states.
As a result, Democrats were shut out of the redistricting process in 2011, leading to gerrymandered boundaries that would reinforce Republican control for the next decade. To avoid another decade of wilderness-wandering, Democrats need to do well in state elections in a month’s time. Nearly 800 of the state legislators who will decide on redistricting after the 2020 census will be elected on November 6th. Thirty-six states will also choose a governor.
Democrats are spending considerable energy on humble state elections. Several new progressive groups focused on state elections have sprung up since 2016. Rita Bosworth left her job after 12 years as a public defender to found Sister District, which helps activists in safe Democratic districts to volunteer in battleground ones. Catherine Vaughan, a former consultant at McKinsey, co-founded Flippable, which channels cash and volunteers to state races that are, well, flippable. Heather Stewart, a former television writer, led the New York division of Indivisible to topple six Democratic state senators who had caucused with Republicans, in effect granting them control of the chamber.
This enthusiasm has already brought results. “The last Sunday before my election in November, it was a rainy, drizzly, dreary day,” recalls Kathy Tran, a Democrat elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017. “We had a parking lot that was overflowing with volunteers—we knocked over 10,000 doors in one shift at 9am,” she says. Democratic gains in Virginia elections last year (the House remained in Republican hands only because a tied race was decided by drawing of lots) are looked to hopefully. Since November 2016 Democrats have flipped 44 state seats, whereas Republicans have flipped only seven. “Right now, Democrats control 32 state legislative chambers. By the end, we could have between 40 and 42 chambers,” says Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which is more than doubling its spending on state contests.
That sounds too optimistic. Chaz Nuttycombe, an independent handicapper, reckons that Democrats are on track to flip five chambers. To sense-check the forecasts, The Economist built a statistical model for state legislative control, then looked at the relation between the generic congressional polls and state elections. Despite its simplicity, the method explains 90% of the variation in election results. Applying it to current polls suggests that Democrats will pick up a modest 173 legislative seats. By comparison, the Republican wave in 2010 was three times that size. The state Senates in Colorado, Connecticut, Maine and New York are the most likely to change hands.
Democrats are also likely to improve on the paltry 16 governorships they currently hold. Republicans are quite likely to lose power in Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico. Polls also put Democrats narrowly ahead in Republican-held states like Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin. Maine and Georgia could succumb if the Democratic wave is really strong. A basic simulation using historical polling errors suggests that Democrats will hold the keys to 23 governors’ mansions when the dust settles on November 7th (see chart 2). That would give them significantly more control over line-drawing in 2021.
Both parties gerrymander, of course. Masterful Democratic gerrymanders in Maryland ensured that Republicans took only one of eight House seats in 2016, despite winning 37% of the two-party vote. A tax form filed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an establishmentarian group led by Eric Holder, a former attorney-general, says the organisation’s purpose is to “favourably position Democrats for the redistricting process”. It would be a shame if a movement organised around electoral fairness resulted in egregious gerrymanders to favour Democrats.
Some progressive groups say they want to take redistricting powers away from partisan legislators altogether and give them to independent, non-partisan commissions. Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the party arm devoted to state elections, says these efforts are mere pretence. Democrats, he says, favour independent commissions in states they have little chance of winning, but are not urging change on states they comfortably control. “The fairness of those lines is in the eyes of the beholders. If it works out that it favours your people, you love the process. And if you don’t, you go the other way. It’s a classic class of motivated reasoning,” says Mr Walter.
States do more than just draw lines every decade, however. Republicans have used their decade of power in the states to reduce union power, tighten voting requirements and deter liberal policies in cities. Democrats—keen to expand Medicaid and protect abortion as a hedge against a conservative Supreme Court—are newly aware of the importance of the states. The fact that a backlash against the president’s party once again coincides with the next cycle of redistricting is a bonus for them.