Look past the GOP takeover of Washington, however, and the outlook for Democrats is even more alarming. In November, the party lost control of state legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kentucky. The state senate in Connecticut, which had been firmly blue, is now evenly split. Republicans ousted Democratic governors in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont. All told, Democrats surrendered about 30 seats in state legislatures. They now hold majorities in just 31 of the country’s 98 legislative bodies, and only 15 of the nation’s governors are Democrats.
The losses in November are part of a sharp and unprecedented decline for the party at the state level. Since Obama took office eight years ago, Democrats have lost over 800 seats in state legislatures. For the first time in history, they do not control a single legislative chamber in the South. Overall, the party is now at its weakest point at the state level since 1920.
The GOP takeover of state governments was no accident. In 2010, Republicans poured $30 million into state races—three times more than Democrats— as part of a deliberate strategy to control the once-in-a-decade process of congressional redistricting. As a result, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats and gained control of twelve state legislatures. In 2014, the GOP spent another $38 million on state races and picked up ten more legislatures.
Republicans have been deliberately building their advantage at the state level since 1994, when they took control of 15 state legislatures. Groups like the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network began using state legislatures as laboratories for conservative ideas, funneling policy proposals from Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to state lawmakers. With their first majority in Congress in 40 years, Republicans in Washington could also dictate public policy in a host of states: For the first time in history, as conservative Democrats defected to the GOP, more than half of Southern legislatures tilted red.
“As recently as the early 1990s, the South was very competitive between parties, if not favoring Democrats,” says Boris Shor, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “But since the landslide of ’94, Republican voting in state legislatures has become a function of what is happening in Congress and the presidency.”
After the Civil War, federal troops occupied the defeated South and helped enforce civil rights laws, enabling Republicans to win power in many Southern states thanks to the overwhelming votes of newly enfranchised black men. While they controlled many former rebel states during Reconstruction, other Southern states like Kentucky that hadn’t seceded stubbornly resisted the Republican Party. After Reconstruction ended and those troops withdrew, white-supremacist reactionary Democrats retook power in nearly every Southern state, and even the modern pro-civil rights party held every Southern state legislative chamber as recently as 1992.
While the two parties’ voter coalitions and their positions on civil rights have changed massively in the last century and a half, one thing remained constant: Republicans had never held every Southern legislature at once. That streak ended in 2016, when Republicans won control over the Kentucky state House for the first election since 1920, giving them control of both chambers at once there for the first time in state history. Democrats had lost power in Kentucky during part of the Civil War, when pro-Confederate forces tried to form a rival secessionist government, but it was to the Unionists instead of the Republicans.
With Kentucky, Republicans now control both legislative chambers in every Southern state, roughly those that span from the Virginias to Texas. Although the Census Bureau still defines the Democratic-controlled ex-slave states of Delaware and Maryland as Southern, their cultural affinities have drifted much closer to the Northeast in the post-World War II era. Donald Trump won all of these Southern states except Virginia, while Republicans have also aggressively gerrymandered the vast majority of their state legislatures. However, Kentucky’s lower chamber was a rare Democratic-drawn map, helping the party cling to power until 2016.