The Slatest

The Other Place Democrats Posted Big Gains Tuesday: State Capitals

The State Capital of Iowa is reflected by the Henry A Wallace Building on November 6, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The State Capital of Iowa is reflected by the Henry A. Wallace Building on Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa.
David Greedy/Getty Images

Democrats had a good, if not exactly great, night on the federal stage on Tuesday, winning the two dozen seats they needed to retake the House with room to spare, and limiting their losses in the Senate, where they faced a historically brutal midterm map. It wasn’t the stunning rebuke to Donald Trump that the left so desperately wanted, but it will give the party real, actionable power in Washington for the first time since he took office.

The story at the state level, however, involves far fewer caveats: Democrats unquestionably had a great night, one where they gained far more than they lost.

As I explained in the run up to Election Day, the state landscape can defy simple summation. The difference between Democrats winning 22 House seats and winning 23, for instance, was the difference between spending the next two years in the minority and spending it with the speaker’s gavel in hand. But there just isn’t that kind of national tipping point at the state level. No aggregate outcome—such as either party winning a majority of gubernatorial seats or claiming a majority of state legislative chambers—can have a greater effect than the sum of its parts.

That said, Democrats now have far more parts to count than they did before the midterms.

The party flipped a total of seven governor’s seats from red to blue—Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin—with things still too close to call in Georgia, where Republican Brian Kemp holds a narrow lead on Stacy Abrams and the prospect of a recount looms. Meanwhile, Republicans’ lone gubernatorial pickup wasn’t even at the Democrats’ direct expense: Mike Dunleavy will replace Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who dropped his re-election bid shortly before Election Day. Even assuming Georgia stays red, Democrats will have winnowed the GOP’s advantage in the gubernatorial department from 33–16 to 27–23, the closest the margin has been since the GOP picked up a half dozen seats and a 29–20 advantage following the 2010 midterms. And bonus: All seven of Democratic pickups will play a role in redrawing their states’ congressional maps following the 2020 census.

Not everything went Democrats’ way, of course. They came up short in a trio of swing-state gubernatorial contests they’d have loved to win ahead of 2020: Ohio, Iowa, and Florida, a victory in the last of which would have also cemented Andrew Gillum’s status as rising star in the party. But dulling the sting of those defeats were cathartic wins in Wisconsin—where Tony Evers unseated Gov. Scott Walker, who has been labor’s white whale for the better part of a decade—and in Kansas—where Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, aka the nation’s most notorious vote thief.

Democratic gains extended further down the ballot. According to Governing magazine’s count, the party picked up a total of seven legislative chambers: both the House and Senate in New Hampshire, the Connecticut Senate, the Colorado Senate, the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House, and the New York Senate, which Republicans currently control thanks to a rogue Democrat who caucuses with them. Meanwhile, the GOP’s only chance at flipping a chamber is the Alaska House, which Democrats currently control with a bipartisan coalition of their own and that remains too close to call.

Things look even brighter for Democrats if you zoom in a little further. Also per Governing, they will now have supermajorities in both chambers in Oregon, as well as in the Delaware House, the Illinois House, and the Nevada Assembly. Meanwhile, they will end GOP supermajorities in the Michigan Senate, the Pennsylvania Senate, and both chambers in North Carolina.

Democratic gains won’t be enough to give the party control of most of the nation’s legislative chambers—the GOP entered the night holding roughly two-thirds of them—but they don’t need that to get things done. Democrats will now have complete control of Maine’s Legislature and its governorship, for instance, which will let them move forward with the Medicaid expansion that term-limited GOP Gov. Paul LePage had been blocking. Or consider New York, where Democrats’ new trifecta could allow them to press forward with criminal justice reform.

Federal elections are always going to get top billing, but Tuesday’s state results are yet one more reminder that the bottom half of the ballot can matter as much as the top.