GOP’s dominance of state legislatures one of decade’s big political shifts

By Tom Baxter

Amid all the other gloomy results for Democrats higher up on the ballot, the erosion of a couple more seats in the state House might not seem like the worst disaster. But it’s symptomatic of a national trend which may be their party’s most troubling problem.

While they were gaining control of the U.S. Senate last week, Republicans also picked up control of a total of 11 state legislative chambers,  and they made significant gains elsewhere, including Florida, where they reached a supermajority in the state Senate. Republicans even rolled back Democratic supermajorities in the California House and Senate, as well as the Delaware Senate and the Vermont House.

This leaves the GOP with control of 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, topping its previous record of 64 chambers in 1920. It marks two straight midterm elections in which Republicans have made huge gains in state legislatures, following through on a strategy originally designed in 2008 to target legislative races in key states ahead of the 2010 reapportionment and redistricting.

Many of the GOP’s earlier gains in legislative strength came from Southern states going through the last stages of realignment, but the gains in recent years have come from all over the country.

This has disastrous implications for the Democrats, who already are nervous about the strength of their bench. From a grassroots perspective, state legislatures are where the greatest political opportunities are. When that font of ambition dries up, the party will find it much more difficult to recruit candidates for governor’s and congressional races across the country.

There’s another, equally compelling reason why state legislatures are so important. They draw the maps which they and their states congressional candidates run in, which is why the GOP launched its REDMAP strategy, which netted a pickup of 660 legislative seats across the country in 2010.

REDMAP’s impact was clear in this year’s U.S. House elections, when Republicans running on the congressional maps these legislatures drew widened their majority in Congress. Pundits now pronounce their majority to be unshakeable before the 2020 census, and maybe thereafter.

In much the same way Republicans have fallen behind the Democrats in organizing for the past two presidential elections, Democrats have been caught flat-footed by this rapid gain in Republican power at the state level. If they can’t reverse it, they face a future without candidates, or the maps to run them in.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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