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Democrats blame increased Trump turnout, uphill races for failure to win state legislative seats

Democrats' poor performance in state legislative races means Republicans will again dominate the redrawing of congressional districts.
The North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh.
The North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh.Al Drago / CQ-Roll Call via AP

WASHINGTON — Even though they defeated President Donald Trump in last week's elections, Democrats down the ballot failed to win key races in the party's drive to retake the Senate, leaving them needing to win two potential runoffs in Georgia to accomplish that goal.

The party unexpectedly lost a handful of House seats with more than a dozen congressional races yet to be decided. And the internal party argument about what's to blame for the losses has already begun.

Among the most disappointing showings for Democrats, however, was in the party's big push to take over state legislatures, where redistricting will have a lasting impact on Congress for the next decade.

Democrats launched ambitious efforts to break up Republican-dominated legislatures in key battleground states like Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Texas. While Arizona's results are still being tallied (Republicans are optimistic that they'll hold the state House and the state Senate), Democrats have yet to gain any chambers, and they lost control of the New Hampshire Legislature.

The elections leave Republicans with majorities in 59 of the 98 chambers that have partisan control, compared to Democrats' 37, with two outstanding, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans will again dominate the redrawing of congressional districts after the new census is completed.

Democrats invested nearly $100 million among various groups, along with the creation of a new group — the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by former President Barack Obama — to focus on electing Democrats to state legislatures.

"Let's be honest, it wasn't a great night for Democrats," said the group's communications director, Patrick Rodenbush. "We were going to need a huge blue wave, and it never materialized for Democrats in the way we wanted it to."

Rodenbush said the blue wave didn't happen because Democrats "were playing on tough ground," pointing to supercharged Republican turnout for President Donald Trump and gerrymandered maps that have been in place since 2010.

Christina Polizzi, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Republicans "had a hold on these gerrymandered maps, given the broad political dynamics along with the higher Republican turnout that voted straight Republican."

In North Carolina, Democrats had hoped to gain a majority of seats in both the state House and the state Senate. While they did gain a seat in the Senate, they lost seats in the House, including four that they won in 2018 in Trump districts.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said he was "very disappointed," and he blamed "another Trump surge in voters" who don't vote in other elections.

"Our fight to get back to the majority in gerrymandered districts was always to have to win Trump districts," Jackson said.

Republicans in North Carolina are crediting their better-than-expected performance in the suburbs of Charlotte, Raleigh and Fayetteville for blocking Democratic gains.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, said Republicans won because of the fundamentals, including a strong get-out the-vote field operation.

"This is not about districts. It plays a part, but I'd argue not a large part," Moore said. "It's about candidates, ideas and running good campaigns."

He said that the districts were redrawn in 2019 in accordance with a court order and that the new district boundaries had Democratic support.

The Democratic super PAC Forward Majority pledged to spend $32 million on the state contests, with a large part dedicated to Texas, where Democrats aimed to take the state House.

Forward Majority co-founder Vicky Hausman said that in addition to Biden's apparent victory, Democrats "needed stronger coattails from the top of the ticket."

"When Biden underperformed Beto in Texas and Gillum in Florida, it cut off paths to the majority. And with that, we simply hit a wall from the improvements in Democratic performance down ballot in the suburbs in 2018," she said. (Democratic former Rep. Beto O'Rourke narrowly lost his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, while Democrat Andrew Gillum fell just short of winning the race for governor of Florida.)

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are celebrating their maintained majorities and gains in New Hampshire, confident that they will allow them to secure legislative majorities and build a new majority in Congress. The primary GOP group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, also raised significant cash — more than $65 million this cycle with its policy partner, the State Government Leadership Foundation.

David Abrams, deputy executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said that amid expectations of high Democratic turnout and big spending by groups on the left, "we won more than we could've asked for."

"The secret sauce to winning elections is having good candidates, having a great message and having good data," he said, saying Democrats ran solely on opposing Trump.

"Bottom line is they nationalized and we localized, and we won and they lost."

Democrats dispute the characterization that they didn’t localize their races, pointing to examples of candidates in places like Michigan who ran on clean water, and in Arizona who ran on education funding.