It’s probably safe to say that Donald Trump is not going to be a boon for the GOP this election season. The billionaire real estate mogul has such a high unfavorablility rating that guilt-by-association could result in a major turnaround for Democrats in the Senate and even the historically Republican-controlled House. What’s more, it even seems likely that Democrats will regain some ground in state legislatures, where the party has taken a serious pounding in the last few years.
It’s possible that it’s not just because of Trump, though. Rather, Democrats have done so poorly in these elections that they’ve actually bottomed out.
According to the Washington Post, of the 98 bicameral legislative chambers in the U.S., Republicans control 68 of them. This year, Democrats could end their streak of losing these state elections, according to senior PolitiFact correspondent Louis Jacobson. He’s spoken to representatives in chambers all across the U.S., and predicts Democrats will be able to boast of gains in at least half a dozen of these legislative bodies. Partly because of Trump, and partly because the party is doing so badly that there’s nowhere to go but up.
It’s easy to lose sight of just how important these folks are in the glitz and glamour of a presidential election, but these elected officials will be redrawing congressional districts in 2020. The implications are pretty big.
For a little bit of backstory, before the 2010 election, Democrats had control of 62 of the 98 legislative chambers. Right now, the GOP has 68 vs. 30 for the Democrats. More than a total reversal, going from 2 to 1, to 1 to 2. Jacobson explains why:
‘The sort of minor reason is that a whole bunch of chambers in the South that were historically Democratic are really almost entirely gone now. Leading up to 2010, those that have switched to the GOP just aren’t coming back for the Democrats anytime soon. But the bigger, national reason is that it’s a long-term pattern that the party that holds the White House tends to lose stature down-ballot. This is true for every party, though it’s been particularly bad for Democrats during the Obama years; the losses are a bit bigger in the congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative ranks, but it’s hardly unprecedented. It’s almost guaranteed at least going back to the Reagan years.’
It’s easy to understand why we see this phenomenon. Americans tend to be harshly critical of our leaders and tend to demonize the party with control of the White House. And there’s no doubt that the conservative branch of the media has been absurdly effective in giving president Obama this treatment among a certain branch of American citizens. The success of the GOP in state legislatures can easily be chalked up to a “course correction” for the perceived ills of the country. Jacobson elaborates:
‘Democrats could probably do better at the lower levels if a Republican candidate won the White House, though I’m not sure they would want to make that trade off. But that would be the fastest way to get back to a competitive state for the Democrats.’
Yeah, that miiiight be a bit of a steep price to pay to retake state legislatures. The stakes are extremely high this year, too, according to Jacobson.
‘One of the biggest issues for [the Democrats] is redistricting is coming up in 2020, so if you have Republicans in control of a lot of states, they can draw the lines and sort of keep spiraling out of control in terms of Democrats.’
In other words, a set of GOP-controlled state legislatures could result in gerrymandering that would be incredibly damaging to the blue party. Jacobson went on to say that a poor crop of Democratic state legislators can hurt the party as far as their options for higher offices too; fewer Democrats in lower level office means fewer of them gain the experience and name recognition to move up, too.
The good news for the Democrats, though? As far as state legislatures go, there’s nowhere to go but up. Says Jacobson:
‘A key reason why the Democrats have reason for optimism in 2016 is that they’re already kind of at rock bottom. You can only go up from there. Combine that with the fact it’s a presidential election year, so the turnout tends to be more Democratic, as opposed to midterm years.’
Jacobson went on to explain that Trump may not in fact be the poisonous candidate for the party that we all thought he would be.
‘It looked like a few weeks ago [Trump would] be toxic all the way down the ballot, but recent polls are showing me that’s not the case anymore. I think we don’t know what the answer to that is; we have a lot way to go. I did factor in the possibility that Trump could have a negative down-ballot impact in at least certain purplish states. So on the margins, that could help with Democrats. But really, fundamentally, it’s that Democrats are already in a bad position and can’t help but go up.’
Jacobson also believes that it will take a while for the scores between the GOP and Democrats to even out.
‘Getting to parity [between the two parties] is going to take a couple of cycles. And it could go faster for them if Republicans win the White House. But we’re talking changes on the margin here. And some of the chambers that changed Republican in recent years are not going to change back.’
So who are the states to watch for a big Democrat turnaround this year? Jacobson says Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are likely the big ones. And legislatures in states in the west like Arizona and Nevada may see a reversal if Trump can energize Latino voters. Jacobson says, however, that the process is likely to take some time.
‘…in most of these states, it doesn’t look like Democrats can actually take over one or two of those chambers in this cycle alone; it’s a multi-cycle effort.’