The clearest way to get a picture of how well Democrats are doing in 2018 is to go down the list of recent special state legislative elections:
- A Florida state legislative district that Donald Trump won by five points, according to data from liberal political blog Daily Kos, is now in the hands of Democrats, who won it by eight points this month.
- In January, Democrats flipped a Wisconsin state legislative district that Trump won by 20 points.
- A few weeks later, Democrats flipped a Missouri state legislative district that Trump won by nearly 30 points, for a swing of 31 points in one district in a little more than a year.
- And Tuesday night brought, perhaps, the most impressive win of all for Democrats: A Kentucky state legislative district that Trump won by nearly 50 points in November voted for a Democrat over a Republican, an extraordinary 86-point swing. Democrat Linda Belcher won back her old seat after her opponent committed suicide days after being accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at the church he ran. His wife announced a day after his death that she would run for his seat, but she failed to show up to candidate forums and is tied to some of the legal controversies in which her late husband was enmeshed.
The fact that a Democrat won a conservative Kentucky seat isn’t necessarily a surprise. It comes amid a bona fide trend of Democrats winning state legislative elections deep in Republican territory this election cycle.
Since Trump took office, Democrats have picked up 37 state legislative districts, a number of those in conservative districts in states such as New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. By comparison, Republicans have picked up four Democratic seats. In November, Democrats came within one seat of erasing Republicans’ two-to-one majority in the state House of Delegates in Virginia.
The wins could beget wins, as voter engagement and grass-roots donations pile up to knock off more Republicans. Democratic operatives have calculated that they are 13 wins from flipping seven state legislative chambers in November, and they are drumming up support to do just that.
If we zoom further out, Democrats’ continuous wins on the state legislative level make up just one piece of evidence pointing to a possible Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. Issues including court cases on gerrymandering and polling is pointing in their favor. I go into more detail here, but here’s a brief rundown of Democrats’ recent slate of good news:
- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court knocked down GOP-drawn congressional districts and, on Tuesday, redrew them with less partisan ones. That decision basically hands Democrats at least a handful of Republican-controlled congressional seats and opportunities to battle for more in other states. That will go a long way in helping Democrats net the 24 seats they need to take back the House.
- Top Republicans in the House are retiring, tilting some seats in key races in California in favor of Democrats.
- For the first time this election cycle, Democrats can win the House just by winning close races, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
- And the simple fact that Republicans control all of Washington means that issues including people’s taxes and the fate of “dreamers” will probably fall on Republicans, not Democrats.
But Democratic victories at the state and congressional level in November are not a foregone conclusion. A lot could still go wrong for Democrats, and if it does, they may not have a chance to win back the House for another decade.
Time is running out for Democrats to pick up more seats. After the 2020 Census, state lawmakers will get to set up the battlefields for state and congressional races in more than 40 states. If Republicans control most of the map, as they did last census, Democrats may not have a chance to regain control of the U.S. House for another decade.
And Democrats’ success at the state legislative level would put only a dent in Republicans’ control of states across the nation. Republicans control 67 of 99 legislative chambers. In 26 states, Republicans control the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Republicans argue that most of the Democratic wins in the Trump era are more because of a political realignment from the country’s swing to the right rather than any skill on the part of the Democrats. Democrats recently celebrated taking back the state Senate in Washington after winning a special election outside Seattle — one of the most liberal cities in one of the most liberal states in the nation.
Finally, early success may have invited too many cooks into the kitchen. Democrats can’t agree on a playbook, struggling with how to balance the rush of attention from national groups that want to play in the state legislative field.
But when you weigh the evidence, add an 86-point swing in one Kentucky state House district to the growing signs that Democrats are going to have a good 2018.