Russell Berman at The Atlantic:
Jessica Post ... now runs the DLCC and helped the committee raise a record $50 million to spend on legislative races this year. But Election Night 2020 was another disappointment: Democrats whiffed in their bid to flip a single state legislative chamber and lost the majorities they gained in 2018 in New Hampshire. The biggest prize they lost was Texas, where the party needed nine seats to win the state House after making inroads two years ago; Democrats likely failed to gain a single seat.
“It turned out we hit a different electorate than everyone was expecting,” Post told me in an interview last week. Democratic strategists initially pointed to two main factors behind the losses: the surge of turnout among Trump’s base that public and private polling failed to capture, and the pandemic, which might have had a disproportionate impact on down-ballot Democratic campaigns.
Post said the DLCC saw evidence that the races were tightening in the final days and sent money to fortify incumbents in places such as Minnesota, where Democrats thought they had the best chance of flipping the state Senate and securing control of both the legislature and the governorship. But it was not until Post saw the long lines of Election Day voters in Republican areas that she realized the party’s assumptions about turnout were woefully off. “It’s not just Democrats who were turning out,” Post thought. The supersize showing by Trump’s base was particularly damaging in key state legislative races because the Democrats’ path to majorities ran through districts that Republicans had gerrymandered to their advantage.
In no state was the outcome more disappointing for Democrats than Texas, which they had made a presidential battleground for the first time in decades only to see Biden lose by nearly six points. After picking up 12 seats in the state House in 2018, Democrats could not make a dent in the nine more they needed to capture the majority. “We’ll do some soul-searching,” a Texas Democratic strategist told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the party’s performance. “Republicans were definitely better organized than they were in 2018.” The strategist said Democrats might have “overhyped” the party’s chances, but the promotion was necessary to draw donor money to such an expensive state. The strategist also said that Biden’s comments in the second presidential debate about transitioning “away from the oil industry” hurt Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley.
While the coronavirus pandemic did not stop voters from turning out in record numbers across the country, Democrats believe that it did hamper them in down-ballot races, where in-person campaigning is equally if not more important than TV ads. And just as at the presidential level, Democratic candidates were much more likely than Republicans to curtail their canvassing in the interest of public health and safety. “The candidate that knocks on more doors in a state legislative race is going to outperform the district,” says Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic state senator from New York who in 2018 founded the Future Now Fund to help the party flip legislative chambers across the country. “We’ve never before had a scenario where one party did it and the other party didn’t.”
So what happened? As the congressional results have shown, the GOP consistently managed to hold its own further down the ballot even as Biden ousted President Donald Trump. Put simply, it was a Biden victory without coattails.
In Pennsylvania, a state Biden is on his way to winning, the Democrat had advantages, but "there were simply no real signs that 2020 would be a wave election in the state," says Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg College political scientist. "Ultimately, the Democrats made marginal, yet impactful, gains to flip the presidential race, while Republicans nudged a few seats their way."
Much the same occurred in Wisconsin, says University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Barry Burden.
"Biden won the state by a narrow margin and only shifted the vote about a point and a half from 2016," Burden says. "Such a small change did not produce significant shifts in the state legislature, where districts have been drawn to prevent it from responding to movement in the popular vote."
Wisconsin's district lines from 2010 aren't the only ones that have held up remarkably well for the GOP majorities that drew them.
Favorable district lines also helped Republicans keep their majorities in North Carolina, a state that Trump appears to be on his way to winning narrowly.
"Despite a court-ordered mid-decade redistricting, the new legislative districts were not particularly favorable to the Democrats," says Christopher A. Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. "Republicans won 51.6% of the vote in the House, but they will hold 56% of the seats."
Another challenge for Democrats: A growing urban-rural divide. In many key states, Democrats had to protect long-serving incumbents from rural districts. Yet Democrats had also made such significant gains in suburban districts in 2018 that they ended up harvesting much of the low-hanging fruit that year.
"Democrats were counting on the blue wave of 2018 that swept them into control of the Minnesota House of Representatives to do the same with the Minnesota Senate in 2020," says David Schultz, a professor of politics and law at Hamline University. "However, there really were no more than eight or nine potentially competitive seats in the Senate out of 67. The Democrats already controlled most of the ones they could pick up."