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The 3,000 Other Elections: Trump May Help Democrats Win Back State Legislatures

The Trump effect may enable Democrats to take back control in some GOP-led states on November 8.

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona, on March 19, 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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Given the media’s obsession with the presidential election, the 3,407 competitive races for seats in state legislatures are often overlooked. So are the 12 gubernatorial races that will be held on Election Day. Yet the results of these contests are no small matter. Republicans currently have, as The Washington Post describes it, “an absolute stranglehold on governorships and state legislatures all across the country.”

Indeed, Republicans now have 31 governors in office, compared with only 18 for the Democrats (the governor of Alaska is an Independent). Republicans control 69 of 99 state legislative bodies (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature) and have a “trifecta” (control of both legislative bodies and the governorship) in 23 states, compared with just seven state trifectas for the Democrats.

The effects of this partisan dominance are clear enough: Republican governors in 19 states refused a Medicaid expansion that would have provided health care to about 3 million uninsured Americans; public universities are under constant attack; conditions in state prisons remain inhumane and unconstitutional; public schools (K-12) and the public-sector unions that their teachers belong to are up against hostile state leaders; and bigoted legislation continually targets transgender people. Despite the lack of interest in these races from much of the media and the public, these elections will have both immediate and lasting consequences.

“Tarnishing the Republican Brand”: the Trump Effect

Whether or not this trend of GOP power will continue will depend greatly on how the 2016 election goes. But Democrats are optimistic that they can at least narrow this balance of power and flip a number of legislative bodies out of GOP control — partially due to the GOP presidential nominee’s name being on the top of every ticket.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Only 20 percent of voters can name their own state representative, observes Steven Rogers in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, so they often just vote for the candidate in the party of the presidential candidate they support. “Thus, while state legislatures wield considerable policymaking power, legislators’ electoral fates appear to be largely out of their control,” Rogers concludes.

This dynamic is a key part of the Democrats’ strategy to reclaim state legislatures this year. “Donald Trump is compounding down-ballot Republicans’ existing challenges of overcoming increased voter turnout, lack of viability among key voting blocs, and general toxicity of the GOP brand,” according to a strategy memo from the Democratic Legislators Campaign Committee (DLCC). “As a result, DLCC considers 14 chambers as key pickup opportunities for Democrats, and we expect to flip 8–12 of them to Democratic majorities this fall.”

Independent observers largely concur. “The Democrats are at a low point,” said Tyler King, the state legislative project director at Ballotpedia, in an interview with Truthout. “There really is nowhere for the Democrats to go but up.”

Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain, have long expressed concern that Donald Trump may hurt their prospects for down-ballot races in the election. Since the leak of Trump’s sexist remarks in early October, this concern has grown. Politico recently reported that since Trump’s most recent scandal, “Some GOP campaigns are preparing to actively run on the idea that Trump cannot win the presidency, instead presenting themselves as a check on a President Hillary Clinton.”

Democrats also hope they can bite into the Republicans’ daunting 13-state advantage, when it comes to governorships. And while Trump’s influence could also help there, eight of the 12 states holding elections are currently in Democratic control. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics forecast says that out of the 12 states electing governors this fall, Democrats have three safe states and two states that “lean Democrat.” The Republicans have two safe states. The remaining five elections are all a “toss up.”

So under the most optimistic possible scenario, the Democrats would gain two governors — or they could lose as many as three. Democratic turnout in the five toss-up states — New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri — will be of tremendous importance. The Democratic Governors’ Association is inserting Trump’s name into the gubernatorial races, including creating a website, which has a “2016 Gov Race Trump Tracker,” chart. “See where GOP [governors] stand on Donald Trump,” says a Democratic Governors’ Association Facebook post promoting the website. “Who are the 21 [governors] still supporting him even after his awful comments?” The site documents (as of October 20) seven GOP gubernatorial candidates who “still support” Trump.

Are Candidates for Governor Part of “Our Revolution?”

So far, none of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have drawn intense support from progressives on a national stage. Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-founded group that endorses progressive candidates, supported dozens of state legislators but not a single gubernatorial candidate. Sanders eventually did endorse the Vermont Democratic nominee Sue Minter on October 13, which the Minter campaign celebrated prominently on its website.

But just weeks earlier, Politico reported that Sanders’ lack of engagement with Vermont’s Democratic candidates was generating “ill will with the state’s Democratic establishment,” with whom Sanders had often clashed. Sanders’ national delegates, the progressive group Rights and Democracy and the Vermont State Employees Association endorsed Minter’s opponent Matt Dunne in the primary, as did Jeff Weaver, the current head of Our Revolution (which did not yet exist during the primary). Dunne vocally supported a statewide single payer program, for instance, while Minter doesn’t mention the phrase at all on her campaign website.

Dunne lost the primary to Minter, who is “very much a moderate Democrat,” as Howard Dean said. Minter did eventually endorse Sanders in the presidential primary, but did so well after her Democratic opponents and initially made a point to “distinguish between an endorsement and telling the public who she plans to vote for,” according to WCAX in Vermont.“It was disappointing to see Sue endorsing as late as she did,” Dunne’s campaign manager, Nick Charyk, said at the time.

Of course, what is viewed as “moderate” in Vermont is different than in other states. Minter is the only current gubernatorial candidate who endorsed Sanders and would be viewed as more progressive in other parts of the country, especially in comparison to the six races in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012: West Virginia, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Utah.

One interesting example of a progressive gubernatorial candidate is Governor Kate Brown of Oregon. Brown took over the office when John Kitzhaber resigned amid a corruption scandal in February 2015. Although she endorsed Clinton over Sanders, to the dismay of many, she has been praised by labor and progressives for having had an ambitious, if brief, tenure so far. She signed HB 2828 which will commission a study of a state-wide single-payer health care system, signed several laws aimed at making medical marijuana more accessible, and was praised for a “landmark agenda.” In 2015 she pushed through four bills backed by the progressive “Fair Shot” coalition. She has also come out in favor of Measure 97, a corporate tax increase that is opposed militantly by big business.

But, Brown was only able to do this because Democrats have a strong trifecta, dominating the legislature with 18 of 30 seats in the Oregon Senate, and 35 of 60 in the Oregon House. Further, Brown outraged organized labor this fall with her decision to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), costing her an endorsement from the Machinists Non-Partisan Political League (MNPL), according to NW Labor Press. Brown is currently leading in the polls, while Measure 97 is in a “virtual tie.”

Gerrymandering and the 2020 Census

Interestingly, the party that wins the presidency in November will face a formidable challenge in the following midterm. Often, midterm election results are a one-sided “wave” — a backlash against the incumbent president’s party, King said. This will be of particular significance in 2018 because, for many states, the legislature will determine redistricting from the 2020 census, leading to “gerrymandering,” — changing the electoral map to favor one political party over the other. “This pushback could be even bigger than usual given how low the [presidential] candidates poll on favorability,” observed King. “The Republicans have been organizing around this goal for many years.”

It is hard to argue with their results. The party has already gerrymandered with such efficiency since before the 2010 redistricting that, as David Daley wrote in a Salon report in April, he thought of the Democrats winning back the House of Representatives as “off the table,” even “if Trump leads the GOP into an epic rout at the presidential level.”

The GOP’s most notable effort is called REDMAP 2020: a long-term project run by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), aimed at securing power in state houses exactly for the purpose of redistricting. A memo released by the committee announcing a $125 million investment goal said the project would “expand Republican-controlled legislative chambers in advance of 2020 redistricting,” and “help the Republican redistricting data acquisition efforts and provide targeted legal strategic advice in redistricting cases.”

“We are launching REDMAP 2020 to stay on offense at a time when Republicans are at historic highs in state chambers around the country,” said RSLC Chairman Bill McCollum in the memo.

Similar efforts by the Democrats have not been as successful, King said. “The Democrats seem better at running for president than they do running at the state level,” he said. Advantage 2020, a Democratic project with similar goals to REDMAP, has been terminated, according to FEC filings.

Why the State Elections Matter

As November 8 draws near, it’s important to remember that this election’s effect on the balance of power in the states is not only important because of all the damage Republican-led state governments have done to health care, discriminatory policies, prison and education, but also because it will affect the makeup of Congress for the next decade or more.

“People often say change never happens in Washington,” King said, when asked why the public should care about these down-ticket races in the states. “But with the state elections, you have another opportunity to impact real change.”

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