In 2010, two years after the election of President Barack Obama, state legislatures took a devastating, hard right turn.
The methodical decision on the part of the Republican Party was long in the works—in March of that election year, Karl Rove, king of the electoral assholes, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to shout the plan to the masses, writing, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” The response from the Democrats was hardly more than a shrug. Instead of fighting to protect state legislatures on the brink, they poured their attention and funding into nation-wide races deemed more important. Rove’s plan worked: That November, states that had long been blue or purple turned a deep shade of red, with majorities, super-majorities, and Republican governorships popping up across the nation.
By 2016, two-thirds of states were under Republican control, and it was the people, not elected Democrats, that felt the pain. Public schools were starved, healthcare was denied to tens of thousands of residents in the name of spiting Obama, and voting rights were systematically stripped from people the conservative legislators and populace deemed too poor or too racially inferior to have a voice in American politics.
The punchline to this cruel, ongoing joke came in the form of our current commander-in-chief, whose election in 2016 was all the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that permeate our society coming to fruition. And the Democratic Party couldn’t admit what Trump was all too willing to scream and shout: That, despite (or because of, if you were listening to Trump) nation-wide progressive advances, the lives of millions of Americans were continuing to deteriorate.
North Carolina stands out as the place this reality bore out in the most striking way, and not just because I have a particular fascination with my home state’s politics. It was in the Tar Heel State that a longtime Democratic stronghold went from blue to purple to red so fast that the change entirely redefined the way people in America and around the world thought about a state that, for the latter half of the 20th Century, carved out a name for itself as one of the more progressive members of the South. But it was in that bastion of Democratic power that politicians grew lazy and corrupt, and Republicans grew hungry.
After opening the first 15 years of the 21st Century with a string of resignations and arrests of Democratic Party state leaders, it was in North Carolina—a state that went for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016—that the GOP counterattack landed strongest. The Republican Party swept through the legislature in 2010, took the governorship and a dual supermajority in 2012, and spent the following six years doing whatever the hell they wanted. The maps were redrawn to minimize the power of voters of color, public schools were attacked, protections for LGBTQ residents were stripped away, corporations like Amazon were given free reign as unions became a bipartisan target, and state legislators grew comfortable openly wading in the muck of the far-right internet.
Heading into Tuesday’s election, Republicans owned the House 75-45. It was here that Democrats in North Carolina made their move. In Wake County, despite soggy ballots, voters booted the GOP out of office, tossing out Reps. Nelson Dollar, John Adcock, and Chris Malone and replacing them with Democrats Julie von Haefen, Sydney Batch, and Terence Everitt.
Likewise, voters in Mecklenburg County—home to Charlotte—rejected their Republican representatives, with Scott Stone and Andy Dulin both hitting the street. Mix in a couple pick-ups in the mountains, and all of a sudden, the North Carolina House (the same body that counts psycho shit-poster Larry Pittman among its ranks) is no longer looking like the terror of the state, capable of overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. By the time all the votes rolled in, they managed to flip nine seats, kill the supermajority, and close the gap to 66-54.
The state Senate races also brought relatively good news for the Democrats. There, Democrats didn’t lose a single seat (they only had 15 out of 50 to begin with) and picked up six more from Republicans in both Wake and Mecklenburg County, as well as one in Cumberland County and one out by the beach in New Hanover. Several of those races were nail-biters, so recounts could be in the immediate future, but if those hold, the Dems will have closed the gap to 29-21 and shut the door on the Senate’s supermajority.
Don’t get me wrong—this is still a small victory, a step they should build off of if they hope to wholly reconfigure their state’s reputation. Democrats are still a far cry from claiming a majority in either body. But taking a majority was never a realistic goal this cycle, not if you understood North Carolina politics. The goal, for 2018, was simple: disrupt the unmitigated Republican power. In this, Democrats in North Carolina succeeded.
And they weren’t alone.
In New Hampshire, Democrats managed to flip a state legislature that’s been owned by Republicans for nearly a decade. This included the election of state House Rep. Safiya Wazir, an Afghanistan-born Democrat who will be the first-ever refugee to hold office in the state. While they’ll still be facing down Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who won re-election, the Democrats will finally have some real sway when it comes to setting the state budget and other legislative responsibilities.
In Minnesota, the Democratic Party was facing a 77-57 Republican majority; voters kicked their ass to the curb in glorious fashion, and instead of claiming the 11 seats needed for a majority, went and picked up 18. The GOP did manage to hang on to the state Senate, however, meaning Minnesota is now the only state in the nation with a split legislature.
In Colorado, voters managed to flip the state Senate to the Democratic Party, meaning that the state will now be run by the party in all three branches of government. Similarly, Maine flipped its state Senate, just in time for the forced retirement of dipshit Gov. Paul LePage in January—he was replaced by Democrat Janet Mills, who’s pledged to do what LePage has repeatedly refused and expand Medicaid on her very first day in office.
And finally, voters in New York made the historic move to put the state Senate in the hands of Democrats, marking the first time in 50 years the Dems have held control there. The hope, for now, is that with a non-conservative majority in place in the Senate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will no longer be able to solely function as a centrist, corporation-humping shill, but instead as one whose party affiliation means something more than rhetorical opposition to the Trump administration parading as progressivism.
After having an extra two years to lick their wounds and address their mistakes, Democrats are now in a position to partially fix the shitshow the state and national parties helped cause. They now find themselves in power in some places, while others have simply taken enough seats to no longer be ignored.
But for those that hope not to merely have the Democrats retain this newfound power but for them to rebuild new, fresh statewide parties, what has to happen now feels fairly obvious. In addition to addressing some of the more disturbing choices made on yesterday’s ballots, these state parties need to begin reshaping their own leaderships, just as the national party must; holding hands with an opposition party whose goals are largely to gut any operation that gets tax dollars sent its way, regardless of outcome, can no longer be seen as the compromise necessary to cling to a majority. Aiming for and being content with purple states that sprout centrist after centrist in hopes of creating a nationwide chain of moderate and neoliberal leaders is precisely what lost these legislatures to such a violent force in the first place. It’s the reason why I and thousands of other folks interested in state politics are forced to concede that breaking a supermajority is a laudable goal in places that once led the nation in innovative and actually helpful public services.
Now, hopefully, these state legislatures will be able to begin the lengthy process of course-correcting. If not, everyone will go right back to tuning out state politics before realizing it’s too late, and I’ll be writing about the Democratic Party’s valiant effort to break the supermajorities in 2030.