Carl P. Leubsdorf: Why upcoming state elections are crucial for presidential politics

August 26, 2018

National political attention has focused on the races with the most short-term 2018 impact: the battles for some 60 House seats and a dozen Senate seats that will determine if Democrats can regain control of one or both houses of Congress and start holding the Trump administration to account for its corruption and damaging policies.

But the most significant long-term impact will stem from the contests for 36 governorships and 87 legislative bodies that will play a major role in redistricting congressional and legislative seats after the 2020 census.

Numerically, this year’s gubernatorial results may be divided fairly evenly. But more importantly, Democrats have an excellent prospect of winning virtually all of the nation’s biggest states, reversing the results of 2010 and putting them in position to undo the one-sided congressional redistricting the GOP enacted after those successes. Most GOP victories may come in smaller states with fewer districts to reapportion.

Of the 10 biggest states, the Democrats are heavily favored to retain California, New York and Pennsylvania. They also hold North Carolina’s governorship. Polls indicate they are favored to win in Illinois and Michigan, have a good chance in Florida and Ohio, and a possibility in Georgia. Texas is virtually certain to remain Republican.

That could give Democrats virtually every politically key state across the Midwest from Pennsylvania to Iowa, where Donald Trump won the presidency with inroads among Democrats. Gubernatorial victories will likely bring major Democratic legislative gains. Republicans currently control both houses in 21 states, including six crucial redistricting battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida.

Trump carried all but one of the six in 2016, but all have generally been closely contested in recent elections. The GOP’s post-2010 control of governorships and legislatures in those six states produced a 61-33 advantage in U.S. House seats.

In addition, procedural changes could further level some key playing fields after 2020, including a complex new redistricting system approved by Ohio’s voters and a plan for an independent commission, which Michigan’s voters will consider in November.

Meanwhile, though legislative battles receive far less attention than contests for the House, Senate and governorships, Republican strategists are concerned because they see the same Democratic enthusiasm there as in the more publicized races.

Gerrymandering is not a one-party practice. Maryland Democrats used their control of the governorship and legislature to draw favorable lines. Divided control in Illinois and New York required bipartisan compromises. And California, where Democratic majorities previously produced highly favorable district lines, switched in 2010 to an independent commission, though it made little change in their 39-14 margin.

On the other hand, large Republican legislative majorities and control of the governorship in Texas has given the GOP a lopsided 25-11 GOP margin, though federal courts blocked even bigger gains.

In all, of 36 governorships being contested this year, Republicans hold 26, Democrats 9, and an independent 1 (Alaska). The GOP also holds 68 of the country’s 99 legislative chambers, including Nebraska’s unicameral body.

Many smaller states are likely to remain Republican, and GOP governors likely to be re-elected include four moderates in states Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016: Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. All but New Hampshire have Democratic legislatures.

The only question this year seems to be how many state houses will turn blue in what looks like a good Democratic year — and how great the impact will be after 2020.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.


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