The GOP's tenuous grip on blue and purple state legislatures

The GOP's tenuous grip on blue and purple state legislatures
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The biggest under-the-radar political story is the Republican Party’s tenuous hold on 10 legislative chambers in eight blue or purple states: Arizona (House/Senate), Florida (Senate), Iowa (House), Michigan (House/Senate), Minnesota (Senate), North Carolina (Senate), Pennsylvania (Senate) and Wisconsin (Senate). 

And if you agree with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Texas) assessment that his home state of Texas is “on the precipice of turning purple,” add the Texas Senate to the list.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party holds similarly tight leads in seven legislative chambers — all Senate — in seven states: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Oregon. The difference is that most of these states are solidly blue, while the others are Bluish-Purple, meaning Republicans are unlikely to seize control anytime soon.


And so the 2020 elections could transform our nation’s political power structure beyond the presidency, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House. Republicans control 59 state legislative chambers, compared to 39 for Democrats. Since the 2010 elections, Republicans have controlled no fewer than 56. Yet Democrats now have a legitimate shot at ending the GOP’s nearly decade-long state legislature dominance. 

Tuesday night’s results in Virginia could be a bellwether. Heading into the 2017 elections, Republicans held a 66-34 majority in the House of Delegates. Their loss of 21 seats these past two cycles shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum, as the Democratic takeover of both the House and Senate marked the seventh and eighth state legislative chambers that have swung from Republican- to Democratic-controlled since the start of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s presidency. During that time, Democrats have lost only one legislative body — a shift to a power-share arrangement in the Alaska State House.

Trump’s approval rating in Virginia heading into Tuesday was -6 percent. His approval is also negative in each of the eight blue/purple states where Republicans are clinging to state power: -4 percent in Arizona, -2 percent in Florida, -14 percent in Iowa, -10 percent in Michigan, -11 percent in Minnesota, -3 percent in North Carolina, -8 percent in Pennsylvania, and -11 percent in Wisconsin. Trump carried seven of these eight states in 2016, highlighting just how much the political landscape has changed in places where the GOP recently felt secure.

Why does all this matter? In most cases, state government’s re-draw legislative district lines immediately following the completion of the United States’ decennial census. The November 2020 results will impact state and national politics and policies for the next decade. 

If Democrats succeed in claiming the 10 narrowly divided legislative chambers in eight winnable states, they would slice into the GOP’s trifectas (control of the state house, state senate, and governorship) in Arizona, Florida, and Iowa. As a result, newly created maps could not be easily gerrymandered.


Additionally, such Democratic gains would hand the party trifectas in Michigan and Minnesota, while creating more leverage in the states with Republican Houses and Senates and Democratic governors: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

North Carolina is a particularly interesting case, as Republicans hold a 10-3 seat advantage in the U.S. House despite winning only 50.4 percent of the House vote in 2018. While the state’s courts continue to demand newly drawn district lines for next year’s elections, both sides know these maps will require another overhaul in 2021. A Democratic-controlled Senate paired with Democratic Governor Roy Cooper assuredly would result in maps all-but-guaranteeing at least three more U.S. House seats for Democrats (or a 7-6 Republican-Democratic split).

In light of what is bound to be an exceptionally heated and monumental presidential election, a high-stakes battle for the U.S. Senate, and a fascinating series of U.S. House contests in the potential wake of a Trump impeachment, Tuesday’s elections reinforce how much local politics influence national politics and policy. 

For the better part of a decade, Republicans have governed blue/purple electorates that are not ideologically aligned with them. Democrats were in the same boat decades ago, ruling over increasingly red populations. When the dam broke in 1994 and then in 2010, the Democratic Party was never the same.

If the dam breaks for Republicans in these blue/purple states in 2020, it will be felt for many years.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.