Opinion | The Politics We Don’t See Matter as Much as Those We Do

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This pattern of Republican vulnerability has proved especially true in Texas, where Democrats are determined to capitalize on the major gains they have made in state and federal contests in the suburbs of Dallas, Houston and other cities.

Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice University who has been closely following contests in Texas where Democrats need to gain nine seats to take control of the state house, wrote me:

The polling I am seeing and expect to see in the next few weeks suggests the Democrats have a better than even chance — 55 percent likelihood — of picking up more than nine seats.

In addition, Stein wrote,

the registration numbers are moving away from the Republicans’ previous 1 million voter advantage. Since 2017, 5 percent more Democrats registered to vote in Texas than Republicans and this advantage appears to be widening since the first of the year. The demographic shift is bearing fruit for Texas Democrats and in a predictable fashion.

In the national fund-raising competition, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is slightly behind the Republican State Leadership Committee for the period from January 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, according to I.R.S. records, $28.1 million to $32.8 million.

These figures do not, however, take into account the surge in support of other Democratic groups involved in state legislative contests. The most important of these is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which has raised more than $50 million since its founding in 2017. The committee backs Democratic legislative candidates but requires them to support efforts to restrict gerrymandering, including the creation of independent redistricting commissions.

While Democrats are on the offensive, especially in suburban legislative seats across the county, the party is fighting an uphill battle overall.

Charles Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, an election forecasting firm, assessed the likely outcomes of state legislative races in “The State of the States: The Legislatures,” an essay published at Crystal Ball, the political website run by Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Nuttycombe’s conclusion is best summarized in the sub-headline: “Don’t expect much overall change even as many chambers are competitive.”

One of the major problems Democrats face is the unexpected resilience of a $30 million 2010 Republican program called Redmap — the Redistricting Majority Project. This exceptionally successful initiative was developed by Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove, who recognized the crucial role of state legislatures in determining the balance of power in Congress.

As Reuters reported, in the 2010 election, the Republican Redmap project

netted some 700 state seats, increasing its share of state House and Senate seats by almost 10 percent, from approximately 3200 to over 3900. It took over both legislative chambers in 25 states and won total control of 21 states (legislature and governorship) — the greatest such victory since 1928.

Christopher Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University, is a co-author with Devin Caughey and Chris Tausanovitch, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., of “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Political Process,” which I mentioned earlier. Warshaw emailed me about the continued success of Redmap:

It’s really remarkable how extreme and durable some of the gerrymanders from 2011-12 have been. A number of studies have shown that the Republican gerrymanders in places like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were among the most extreme in history. In Congress, these gerrymandered maps probably gained Republicans at least a dozen seats. One study recently estimated that Republicans gained 27 seats in Congress from the 2011 maps.

In the case of Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin, Warshaw pointed out,

Republicans have continued to control the majority of seats year after year in both chambers of the state legislatures. This is despite the fact that Democrats received a majority of the votes in state legislative elections in all three states in 2018. In some of these states, Democrats would probably need to win the popular vote by more than 10 percent to win control of the state legislature. So while I do think that Democrats will win control of a couple more chambers in 2020 if Biden continues to have an 8+ point lead over President Trump, it’s going to be very difficult for Democrats to overcome the Republican gerrymanders in places like Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

In other words, Democrats may have the wind at their backs this year, but the roadblocks Republicans have constructed over the course of the past decade are quite likely to prove insurmountable, for quite some time, no matter which party takes the White House, no matter how meaningless voters find the ballots they cast and no matter how many American voters are deprived of a voice.

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