March 2, 2015

Ahead of redistricting, Democrats seek to reverse statehouse declines

Partisan Composition of State Legislatures

Late last month, a Democratic National Committee “victory task force” released its preliminary report on what the party needs to do to avoid a repeat of the pasting it received in November’s midterms. One of its main recommendations: The party needs to take control of more state legislatures in time for the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census.

Though they tend not to get much attention from Beltway insiders, state legislatures are key players in redrawing congressional-district boundaries. In most states, it’s the state legislature that takes the lead role in drawing new district maps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Commissions do this job in 13 states and have advisory or backup roles in seven others, although the Supreme Court is currently weighing the legality of the commissions’ task.) Given the inherently political nature of redistricting, which party controls the legislature can be crucial to a state’s final maps and thus, control of Congress.

Democrats Have Lost 900 Seats Since 2009Democrats have “suffered devastating losses at all levels of government” over the past several election cycles, the DNC report noted. According to our analysis of NCSL data, the Democratic Party today has 919 fewer legislative seats than it did in 2009. Democrats control both legislative chambers in just 11 states, down from 34 states in 1982 and 27 as recently as 2010, though that number had fluctuated in the years in between. Meanwhile, Republicans have gained a total of 888 legislative seats since 2009, and control both chambers in a record-high 30 states. In eight other states, each party controls one chamber.

(Our analysis excludes Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which is officially nonpartisan. However, lawmakers’ affiliations are widely known and reported on in that state, and Republicans appear to have a 35-to-13 advantage, with one independent.)

The Republicans’ big 2010 gains weren’t just in Congress: They picked up nearly 700 legislative seats and won full control of 25 state legislatures (up from 14), putting them in a strong position to influence post-census redistricting. Although they weren’t able to retake the White House in 2012, the party extended and solidified its congressional and legislative gains in the 2014 midterm elections. That “long game,” the DNC report says, is what Democrats need to emulate if they hope to eventually retake the House of Representatives. (Already, Democrats have sought to push the process in their favor where they could, such as in California.)

The current GOP stranglehold on state houses, governorships and congressional seats is a by-product of more than 30 years of organizing, fostering talent and significant financial investments at the state and local level,” the report says. “The DNC must develop – and accelerate – programs at the state and local level to ensure that the next redistricting and reapportionment projects encourage Democratic growth.

Topics: U.S. Political Parties, State and Local Government

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. K Brown2 years ago

    It appears that the Democratic Party’s agenda items are becoming increasingly centrist and urban; catering to the press and the poor.

    On the other hand, Republican agenda items appear to favor business, suburban and exurban issues. I hear from my entrepreneurial friends that the main reasons for leaving the rust-belt in favor of places such as Louisiana and Texas is not the higher taxes in the rust-belt, but what the state houses are doing with the taxes.

    In Chicago, at least, albeit Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago to escape higher taxes in Washington, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, the challenger to Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago promises to take away tax breaks from corporations to shore up structurally and academically failing CPS schools and to limit the influx of charter schools: which are nearly self-sustaining. This is not sound business acumen.

    The Republican Party appears to have a laissez-faire attitude toward the urban poor. They appear to want to put money into successful endeavors and not into failed social experiments which are the sacred cows of much of the urban-centric voter base for the Democrats. In this, the Republicans may appear elitist to the urban poor.

    One can observe that the 2/3 Republican majority of the statehouses is nearly upon us and that an amendment to the Constitution to limit the power of the Federal Government requires a Constitutional Convention comprising that 2/3 of the several states. Such an amendment could then be ratified by 3/4 of the several states with or without the consent of Congress.

    It all starts in the statehouses. That’s the direction this article reveals.

  2. HillRunner2 years ago

    If Democrats had been willing to finance their burgeoning and humane social policies by stomping down hard on corruption in federal government agencies and their social programs, they could have been implemented without arousing so much Republican ire and the broad national resentment that led to losing so many seats in recent elections.

    President Obama and his early Democratic majorities could have embarked first on a housecleaning campaign to free up the money for their helpful programs.

    But, rather than risk offending Democratic cronies, political machines, unions and Hollywood donors, our administration borrowed from China and elsewhere and created new, unbacked money from smoke.

    Every family and business that has to balance its own checkbook sees the fallacies. Some stayed loyal to the party in spite of its fiscal foolhardiness, but many dropped their jaws in disbelief and dropped their votes into Republican ballot boxes.

  3. SLOWarren2 years ago

    As an advocate for State commissions to draft district lines, I’m saddened by the politics involved here. It is true, I think, that Republicans and Democrats share the same defect. They want to “win” the numbers game in order to have power.
    In California, the commission system didn’t work well. We appear to have traded political gerrymandering for racial gerrymandering.
    If the commissions survive Supreme Court review, maybe it will be better in 2020. If not, we can expect the same old game, no matter who “wins”.

  4. Joel Frese2 years ago

    Finally. They need to stay on top of this because if you think for a second that Republicans are going to redistrict ethically, you’re kidding yourself. There are far more rational Americans than irrational ones so Democrats should have won more elections. We haven’t seen this. Something is wrong and redistricting errors seems to be the problem.

    1. Harry Hosier2 years ago

      How is it helpful to question our opponent’s ethics and rationality for our own failure. Perhaps if both parties set aside their ideologies and did an honest day’s work for their employers, THE PEOPLE, we’d all be better off. Just sayin.