Can Democrats break the GOP stranglehold on the states?

At the national level, the study forecasts another grueling decade of trench warfare in presidential elections between two closely matched coalitions, with Democrats positioned to improve across Sunbelt states adding more racial minorities and white-collar workers, and Republicans likely to gain ground across preponderantly White and heavily blue-collar states in the upper Midwest and potentially parts of the Northeast.

At the state level, the study says Democrats face a very narrow path toward breaking the GOP’s current dominance. The study concludes that Democrats have a realistic chance of flipping Republican-held legislative chambers in just six states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona in the near term, and North Carolina, Georgia and, most strikingly, Texas, later in the decade. The battle for legislative power in those states, the report concluded, will pivot on just 85 mostly-suburban and well-educated state legislative districts — or less than 1% of all the state legislative seats across the nation. “The opportunity space” for Democratic gains “is limited, but very clear,” says Vicky Hausman, Forward Majority’s co-founder and co-chief executive officer.

Forward Majority, a group founded in 2017 to challenge the Republican control of most state legislatures, launched this study in spring 2021. Led by Ethan Roeder, the group’s chief innovation officer and formerly the data director for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, the study analyzed demographic patterns, the trends in electoral behavior among different voter groups (such as Whites with and without four-year college degrees), patterns of in- and out-migration, and other factors to forecast the political lean of the 50 states over the next decade. It ran 90 different computer scenarios that tweaked the expectations for these factors up or down, and then produced its consensus estimate from all of those simulations.

Democrats begin this competition for state power in a steep hole. Today Republicans control 61 state legislative chambers and Democrats just 37. (The final state, Nebraska, has a unicameral nonpartisan legislature effectively controlled by Republicans). Republicans hold both legislative chambers in 30 states and Democrats in just 17. (In two other states, Minnesota and Virginia, control of the two legislative chambers is split between the parties.) Adding in governors, Republicans hold unified control in 23 state governments and Democrats just 14.
Republicans are using this state-level power to aggressively roll back civil rights and civil liberties and to advance an array of other social conservative priorities. Almost all of the Republican-controlled states are taking steps to ban or restrict abortion; add new hurdles to voting; impose limits on how public school teachers can talk about race, gender and sexual orientation; ban books; increase penalties for public protest; and to eliminate licensing and training requirements for carrying concealed weapons. Taken together, this offensive, supported by the GOP majority on the Supreme Court and Republican senators wielding the filibuster, amounts to a multi-front effort to unravel the rights revolution that began in the 1960s in which the Supreme Court and Congress had steadily nationalized more rights and reduced states’ ability to constrain them. Simultaneously, hundreds of GOP state legislators have launched partisan investigations of the 2020 election results, or otherwise amplified former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud.

In many ways, Hausman acknowledges, the study underscores how difficult it will be for Democrats to topple the citadel of state legislative power Republicans are using to move this agenda. “One could read this report and say we are f**ked,” she told me. “These chambers are hard to win, even at the end of the decade. There is nothing here about them becoming naturally Democratic and ours.”

The Forward Majority study sees a realistic chance for Democrats to oust the existing Republican state legislative majorities only in the six states noted above. The group expects Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the lines have been drawn by independent commissions, to remain “a dogfight” throughout the decade, in Roeder’s phrase. It sees immediate opportunity also in Arizona, another state with commission-drawn lines, where Republicans hold narrow majorities in both chambers. Longer-term, it expects openings in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, states where Republicans have entrenched their majorities with aggressive gerrymandering.

“There aren’t any other states on the map that we see as being big opportunities for Democrats to meaningfully take power from Republicans this decade,” Roeder acknowledges.

Across both the near- and long-term battlefield, the group’s modeling shows that the tipping point districts likely to determine control of these state legislative chambers are predominantly suburban seats that are better-educated and more White (although generally still with considerable diversity) than their states overall. The improving Democratic performance in such white-collar areas is why the group believes Democrats can eventually overcome the GOP gerrymanders, but even by the end of the decade, those tipping point seats will still lean slightly Republican in their basic political allegiance.

That means, the study concluded, in a hypothetical 2030 election year in which the national popular vote splits exactly evenly between the two parties, Democrats would not be favored to win any of the state legislative chambers across these six states. But, the simulations concluded, the party would be in position to win most of these chambers with a very narrow national popular vote advantage, except in Texas and Georgia, where they would likely need a bigger edge to likely prevail.

To increase the party’s odds of winning these battlegrounds, Forward Majority argues that Democrats must increase their organizational investments today in suburban and exurban areas where the party has not typically focused.

“The key for Democrats is to exploit opportunities at the district level that have not been systematically pursued, which can build advantage and shape the electorate of these districts over time,” the report concludes. Most important, the group notes there are “2.2 million unregistered likely Democratic voters in these districts.”

But, Hausman says, the party typically has not devoted significant funds to voter registration drives in such areas, focusing instead on urban areas where Democratic support is most concentrated. That can help statewide candidates, she notes, but doesn’t benefit the struggle to win state legislatures since Democrats already control most of the seats in such urban areas.

Conversely, while many Democrats have argued for increasing the party’s outreach in rural areas in the hope of boosting their statewide candidates by reducing GOP margins, Hausman and Roeder say such efforts are highly unlikely to sway enough voters to tip many GOP-held rural state legislative seats. The one movable area where Democrats actually can gain seats, Hausman says, “is in … the suburban districts that lie between the urban districts we already control and the rural districts that are all Republican. … The entire ballgame is thinking about suburban battlegrounds in a different way.”

The study is relatively more optimistic about Democratic prospects in the battle for the White House. Since 2020, an array of Democratic commentators and strategists, such as demographic analyst Ruy Teixeira and data scientist David Shor, have raised alarms that Democrats in the years ahead could be locked out of the White House by increasing educational polarization — the tendency of more well-educated voters to back Democrats and more voters without college education (including potentially more Latinos) to vote Republican. That could benefit Republicans both because most voters do not hold four-year college degrees and also because those who do tend to be concentrated in relatively fewer states that already lean blue.

But Forward Majority’s extensive modeling show the two parties remaining highly competitive for the White House and Democrats even enjoying a slight advantage in conditions that replicate the most common outcomes of the past three decades. The pattern of educational polarization, if it persists, will slightly improve the Republican position through 2030 across the key Midwest battlegrounds (including not only Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but also Minnesota and some Northeastern states), the simulations project.

But, the analysis forecasts, educational polarization, along with growing racial diversity and more in-migration of white-collar workers from other states, will simultaneously improve the Democratic position across four giant Sunbelt battlegrounds: North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Texas. An electorate in which Democrats gain among well-educated voters and Republicans grow stronger among those without college degrees, “is not the fight I would necessarily choose. This is the fight that Republicans have chosen for us,” says Roeder. “But those are trade-offs we can absorb in a state like Texas or a state like Pennsylvania.”

Overall, Forward Majority’s modeling projects that in a completely neutral environment — an election in which the two parties divide the presidential popular vote exactly in half — the Electoral College balance between them will remain achingly close.

On such a theoretical landscape, the modeling forecasts that Democrats by the end of this decade would be favored to win a comfortable 52% of the vote or more in 17 states (plus Washington, DC) representing 212 Electoral College votes; Republicans in turn would be favored to win at least 52% in 24 states with 204 Electoral College votes. Another nine states would function as the tipping point. Five states with 47 Electoral College votes, notably including Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, would lean very slightly Democratic (between 50 and 52% of the vote); four states with the final 75 Electoral College votes, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas, would lean equally Republican. Wisconsin and Florida, two top battleground states in recent years, each move into a slightly more secure position for Republicans, and Iowa and Ohio, competitive as recently as the Obama years, remain decisively red, according to Forward Majority’s modeling.

All that means, in the scenario of an absolute tie in the national popular vote, Forward Majority projects Republicans would be favored in states holding a winning 279 Electoral College votes and Democrats in states holding 259.

But a national presidential popular vote that is tied or leaning Republican is very much the exception over the past three decades. Republicans have sometimes won the national popular vote, as measured by the total votes cast for each party’s congressional candidates nation-wide, during recent mid-term elections including 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014. But in the larger turnout presidential contests, it’s been a very different story: Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections — a record unmatched by any party since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Of those seven Democratic popular vote winners since 1992, all won by at least 3.9 percentage points except Al Gore in 2000 (.5 points) and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (2 points). (Both of them lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote.)

Under Forward Majority’s simulations, a Democratic nominee at the end of this decade would reach 326 Electoral College votes with even a two percentage point popular vote win — not only holding Michigan and Pennsylvania but tipping North Carolina and even Texas. In fact, the group’s modeling projects that by 2030 North Carolina and Texas will lean slightly more toward Democrats than Michigan or Pennsylvania do, an outcome that may seem difficult to imagine today, especially in Texas. “People can be forgiven for writing off the idea that Texas is ever going to be Democratic because they have probably heard that before,” says Roeder. “But we have seen Texas creep toward better Democratic performance for a long time. And if just that state alone … gets into a place where it is legitimately competitive, it has huge consequences for the electoral map.”

Turning Texas blue remains very much a long-term project. In the meantime, Hausman has her eye on a more immediate challenge.

The Supreme Court earlier this year announced that in its upcoming session it will hear a case about the so-called independent state legislature doctrine. That legal theory contends state legislatures have untrammeled power over the rules for federal elections, unconstrained by governors or even state courts and state constitutions. Democrats fear that if the GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority upholds that argument, it would clear the way for Republican-controlled state legislatures in 2024 to claim fraud, toss out the popular vote results in the presidential election and substitute their own electors pledged to the GOP nominee.

That possibility raises the stakes in state legislative contests for this fall.

Democrats have a realistic opportunity to win at least one chamber and break the complete Republican control of the state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, all states whose district lines were drawn by an independent commission. If Democrats can flip at least a single chamber in all three states, Hausman notes, it would ensure that there are states representing at least 270 Electoral College votes where Republicans do not fully control the legislature. Not long ago, Democrats might never have imagined they would need such an insurance policy to ensure a fair outcome of a presidential election, but that may be the new reality they now confront.

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