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From Progress to Power: How Democrats Regain the States in 2020 Part 1

Part 1- Progress in 2018: Where we won and where we didn’t.

Friday, June 21, 2019 marks 500 days until Election Day 2020. This week, EveryDistrict is bringing you a three-part series on what happened in the states in 2018 and how Democrats can dramatically change the balance of power in the states in 2020. This series takes advantage of EveryDistrict’s unparalleled data analysis of state legislative districts across the country and lays out a compelling framework for how Democrats can win back the states before Republicans have another chance to gerrymander the country, restrict voting rights, and push their unpopular and damaging agenda for another decade. Part 1 — what we’re covering today — will focus on what happened in 2018 in the most critical state legislative districts.

To provide some context for 2018, though, we have to go back to 2008. In 2008, Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature in 27 states. But during the Obama years, Democrats lost almost 1,000 state legislative seats, and as a result, Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature in only 12 states, with Republicans fully controlling 32 states, after the 2016 election.

Figure 1. 2016 State Composition

Source: Daily Kos. Connecticut is marked as a Democratic because though the State Senate was a tie, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor was able to cast the tie-breaking vote.

That momentum changed after 2016. Democrats flipped dozens of seats in state legislative special elections in 2017 and 2018, and Democrats in Virginia flipped 15 state house seats in November 2017, coming within two seats of flipping the chamber.

After the 2018 election, Democrats in six states (Washington, Colorado, New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire) gained control of both houses of the legislature. Democrats also flipped the Minnesota State House (the GOP-controlled State Senate isn’t on the ballot until 2020).

These gains are part of a broader story of progress over the last two years. Between January 1, 2017 and through Election Day 2018, 72 of 99 chambers have shifted in the Democratic direction. Since the 2016 election, there have been 436 R-to-D flips.

You can see every special and general election flip between January 1, 2017 and November 6, 2018 in EveryDistrict’s spreadsheet here.

These are good successes, and an important starting point as Democrats work to rebuild in the states. Now, the question is how Democrats capitalize on this momentum to turn this progress into power by winning where they didn’t in 2018.

Despite Democratic gains, Republicans haven’t given up on the states. After the 2018 election, Republicans still controlled both chambers of the legislature in 30 states (only down two from their post-2016 total). Republicans also flipped 103 seats from D-to-R since 2016, and 12 chambers moved in the GOP direction.

Where did the Democratic gains actually happen and where were Republicans able to hold the line? Through an exhaustive analysis of the results in every single race in 2018, here’s what we know about where the “blue wave” succeeded and where it fell flat:

  • In red state chambers where Republicans dominate the legislature, Democrats had a net gain of only 15 seats.
  • In blue state chambers where Democrats dominate, Democrats consolidated their advantages, adding 94 seats to their majorities.
  • The bulk of Democratic gains did come in the most competitive purple states, with a net gain of 230 seats. However, those gains were concentrated in the more Democratic of the purple states — places that Democrats should never have lost in the first place.

In the five purple states where EveryDistrict worked in 2018 (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), results were more mixed. Democrats consistently failed to win the most critical seats, as shown in this table from our 2019 biennial report.

Table 1. Results in EveryDistrict Chambers in 2018

The results in 2018 tell us that Democrats can make big progress in a single year. But we also know that Democrats gained most of their seats in relatively winnable territory. The next challenge will be winning in the more purple-to-pink seats that were left on the table.

Where does all this leave the landscape in the states in 2019–2020 and even 2022? We’ve divided chambers into three categories: Safe Democratic, Safe Republican, and Purple States.

Table 2. Chamber Ratings for the Cycles Ahead

To flip the chambers in the purple category above (Alaska excluded), Democrats need to flip 177 seats. These 177 seats will be our focus over the next two years. In Part 2 of our series, you’ll hear directly from the candidates we supported in 2018 about the challenges they faced. In Part 3 of our series this week, we’ll lay out a vision for winning these most crucial seats that will guarantee that Democrats turn their recent progress into power.

If you’re interested in learning more about a particular state, visit our map, or, you can see all 2018 election results here and the partisan composition of each state legislative chamber here.

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