Election Day 2018, the moment we’ve been waiting for since November 9, 2016, has come and gone. The big story of the night was that Democrats flipped the House, ending one-party rule in Washington. As of now, Democrats have flipped at least 38 House seats.
But at the legislative level, where we at EveryDistrict focus our efforts, the results were more mixed. Yes, Democrats have flipped over 350 state legislative seats since the 2016 election (but don’t forget that we lost almost 1,000 seats during the Obama years). Yes, Democrats did win back governorships and flip state legislatures in states that have been trending blue, consolidating gains in those places. And yes, Democrats scored some notable policy victories in red states, providing a path forward there.
Where Democrats struggled was in the more purple states — both states that once were in the Democratic column (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin) and states where Democrats have long-hoped to grow but continue to fall short (Arizona and Florida).
Prior to the election, generic ballot polling showed Democrats to be ahead by an average of 8 points. We predicted that with that generic ballot advantage, Democrats could flip almost 500 seats. On the congressional side, the generic ballot polling was pretty accurate. Experts estimated that Democrats needed a 7 point swing to take back the House, and they did just that. Had we seen that trickle down to the state legislative level, Democrats could have flipped almost 600 seats and taken back close to 14 chambers. But that didn’t happen.
Why? We’ve pulled the results to take a preliminary look at where Democrats did well, where they underperformed, how Democrats can do better in 2019 and 2020, and what we’re doing to make that happen.
Bright Spots: Building in the Blue
First, let’s look at the states where Democrats had a really good night. After the 2016 election, Democrats had trifectas, where one party controls the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, in six states: Hawaii, Oregon, California, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Democrats only had tenuous control in Connecticut where the State Senate was a tie, and the Democratic Lieutenant Governor was the deciding vote.
In 2017, Democrats flipped the Washington State Senate and the New Jersey Governorship to gain trifectas in those states. After the 2018 election, Democrats have trifectas in 14 states, adding Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York, and Nevada to the list. In Illinois, New Mexico, and Nevada, Democrats already controlled both chambers of the legislature, so flipping the governorship gave the state its trifecta status. In Colorado and Maine, Democrats flipped the State Senate to give Democrats control of the state (Democrats also flipped the governorship in Maine).
Additionally, Democrats took back control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature and flipped the Minnesota State House (the State Senate isn’t on the ballot until 2020).
With these new trifectas, what should Democrats do? There are various avenues for further progress in these states. As a group focused on elections, we believe state-level Democrats should copy House Democrats and propose an aggressive voting rights agenda that will allow more people to vote more easily. We’ll be releasing a state-level plan in December about how Democrats can guarantee the right to vote for all.
A Plan for the Purple
With at least a 7-point swing like we saw on the congressional level, Democrats should have flipped 10 additional chambers in 6 states and made strong gains in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Why didn’t we see these gains? The largest problem was a lack of funds. In the states where EveryDistrict worked this cycle — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — Democratic challengers went up against well-funded incumbents and couldn’t make up the gap. This stands in contrast to congressional races, where Democratic challengers for House seats outraised Republican incumbents in 92 House districts in the third quarter of 2018, an unprecedented feat that boosted Democrats’ chances to take back the House.
Gerrymandering also played a role, especially in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin where Democrats won the popular vote but didn’t take the chamber. Ohio State Senate Democrats won 52% of the vote and 24% of the seats, Michigan State Senate Democrats won 51% of the votes and 42% of the seats, and in the Wisconsin legislature, Democrats won 54% of the vote to Republicans’ 44%, but they only picked up one seat. Republicans control the Assembly 63 to 36.
In all of these purple states, winning a few thousand more votes would have led to a much different looking legislature. With 5,000 more votes, Democrats could have flipped the Arizona State Senate. But winning those voters, often in Republican-leaning districts, isn’t an easy task. Democrats need to better understand and respond to demographic trends to deepen and broaden the base through new approaches and strategies. Turnout among minority and youth voters was up significantly, but further gains will require these groups to turn out at even higher levels. What tools do Democrats have to engage these voters, especially in states where Democrats have little influence over policymaking? White college voters, particularly women, abandoned the Republican Party en masse. What is the strategy to keep them in the Democratic fold? White voters without a college degree are abandoning the Democratic Party, particularly in rural areas, but winning a small percentage of them back would be a difference-maker in key state legislative races. How do we convince these voters to return to the Democratic Party?
In state legislative races in particular, Democrats need a more targeted strategy to identify the marginal voters necessary to win these seats. State legislatures give power predominantly to suburban and rural districts. As Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin make clear, if we can’t win the voters in the right districts, we can’t win. We’ll be articulating an organizing and political strategy to build winning purple state coalitions into 2019 and 2020.
Re-Making the Red: Initiatives and Amendments
Increasingly, Democrats may have a harder time winning seats in red states, but voters in these states have been embracing Democratic progressive policy priorities. In 2018, voters in states that elected Republican lawmakers also passed ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments that expanded Medicaid, re-enfranchised felons, ensured a living wage, and expanded voting rights. Many southern and western states otherwise controlled by Republicans allow for these types of initiatives. Democrats ought to marshal this process to make sure that progressive policies that will improve lives reach every state across the country. In January, we’ll release a report on how to re-make red states into places where citizens can lead on policy reform.
The Path Forward
In 2019, Democrats have an opportunity to finish what they started and move Virginia into the Democratic trifecta column by flipping two more seats in the House of Delegates and two State Senate seats. In 2017, EveryDistrict was part of the coalition that flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates; we supported 10 of those successful challengers.
Next year, we’ll be back in Virginia, working to protect last year’s gains in competitive districts and ensuring Democrats compete in a broad swath of districts to win the majority in both chambers. In 2017, Democrats did not sufficiently support candidates in enough districts to compete for the majority. That mistake can’t be made again. We’ve identified six State Senate districts and six State House districts that Democrats can win, and Democrats will need to run strong campaigns in all of those districts.
In Mississippi, Democrats have their best chance to win back the Governor’s Mansion in Jim Hood, the current Attorney General. Mississippi will also hold elections for State Senate and the State House, with implications for the Governor’s race. According to the Mississippi Constitution, candidates for Governor must win both the popular vote and a majority in the majority of State House districts. We aim to play a role in getting every district possible to vote for a different future for Mississippi.
EveryDistrict will be working in both Virginia and Mississippi next year, in addition to laying the groundwork to build on this year’s success in 2020. For the latest updates, sign up for our email list and follow us on Twitter @Every_District. Or, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.