Politics / September 22, 2023

Democrats Are on a Winning Streak That Could Transform Our Politics

Recent victories in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire special elections suggest Democrats can score huge wins in the fight to control state legislatures. That changes everything.

John Nichols
Lindsay Powell, Democratic candidate in a special election to fill a vacant Pennsylvania House seat, visits with campaign workers on the Northside of Pittsburgh on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

Lindsay Powell visits with campaign workers on the Northside of Pittsburgh on Saturday, September 9, 2023.

(Gene J. Puskar / AP)

In the past few days, Democrats have secured majority control of the Pennsylvania House and moved within one seat of ending Republican control of the New Hampshire House. Those wins are not aberrations. They are the latest measures of a nationwide blue wave that has seen Democrats outperform expectations in 24 of 30 special elections for open state legislative seats this year. Legislative contests that were once considered local or regional races are being nationalized, as concerns about abortion rights and voting rights—two issues that are up for grabs in statehouses—are putting Republican candidates in a perilous position.

For years, Republicans played a smart game in fights for control of state legislatures across the country. While they quietly mobilized their base of social conservatives—often using direct mail and right-wing talk-radio stations—they mounted high-profile campaigns that sought to present their candidates as mainstream good-government types. That’s become dramatically harder in recent years, as former President Donald Trump has remade the GOP as a party of election result denialists, and a right-wing US Supreme Court has upended abortion rights protections that were until 2022 understood as “settled law” at the federal and state levels.

Democrats suffered continual setbacks in the competition for control of statehouses in the 2010s, creating a disastrous circumstance where Republicans were able to gerrymander themselves into powerful positions even in historically blue states. But in recent years, Democrats have begun to pay more attention to down-ballot races. At the same time, as the GOP has lurched toward right-wing extremism, Republicans have struggled to defend positions that a lot of voters find indefensible.

That’s changing the game for Republicans, who are suddenly on a serious losing streak.

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“In district after district, they’re finding an electorate that is fighting back against their extremist views and policies,” says Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the national group that has played a critical role in raising the profile of contests for control of state legislative chambers.

The numbers back up Williams’s assessment. On average, according to a fresh assessment by the data crunchers at FiveThirtyEight, Democrats are finishing 11 points better than the historic voting patterns of their districts would have predicted. That doesn’t mean that they are winning every race; sometimes, they are merely closing the gap in heavily Republican districts. But in other cases, Democrats are flipping Republican seats and raising the prospect that they will take control of legislative chambers that are currently controlled by the GOP.

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That’s precisely what happened in New Hampshire, where Democrat Hal Rafter, a veteran local official, swept to victory Tuesday in a district where a Republican incumbent had stepped aside, and where Republican Donald Trump narrowly prevailed in 2020. Rafter’s 12-point win was more than just a personal victory. New Hampshire Democrats have flipped four seats in a row this year, and are now just one seat short of an even split in the chamber where Republicans started the year with a relatively comfortable majority. If Democrats can pick up another seat—a real possibility in a 400-seat chamber where resignations are common and more special elections are scheduled—the two parties will be tied for control. If they gain two more seats, the party will take charge of the New Hampshire House, breaking the “trifecta” grip of Republicans on the governorship and both chambers of the battleground state’s legislature.

In Pennsylvania, where control of the state House was tied after the resignation of progressive Democratic state Representative Sara Innamorato, Tuesday’s landslide victory by Democrat Lindsay Powell—a former aide to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)—in a Pittsburgh-area special election gave Powell’s party a 102-101 majority. It also dashed the hopes of Republicans, who currently hold the state Senate, for complete control of the legislature, and gave a major boost to Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro.

What’s going on? Why, at a point when Democrats are fretting about President Joe Biden’s weak poll numbers and about the prospect of losing the Senate in 2024 contests that are weighted against them, are the party’s candidates doing so well in state legislative races?

“The voters’ rejection of GOP extremism could not be more clear,” says Jessica Post, the former president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, who now serves as a senior adviser to the group. Post ticks off a long list of issues where GOP positions are not just extreme but extremely unpopular: “the future of abortion access, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change measures, gun safety legislation.” Add to that concerns about Republican threats to voting rights and democracy, including the rampant denial of election results after Trump refused to accept his 2020 defeat, and GOP candidates find themselves in far more precarious positions than casual observations of Biden’s low approval ratings might suggest.

That’s probably good news for Biden, and for Democratic US Senate and House candidates.

The polls may be concerning, but actual election results are not just looking good for the party. They’re looking excellent.

Pointing to the data detailing Democratic over-performance in legislative races, 2012 Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, a veteran Democratic strategist who managed President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, says to the pundits, “You can keep talking about polls 14 months out [from the 2024 presidential election], but this is what I’ve been looking at all year.”

It’s a smart place to look. For decades, patterns of special-elections results from the political off-season have been among the best indicators of how parties do in presidential and congressional election years.

Democrats ought not rest too comfortably on their laurels, however. Pennsylvania’s Powell and New Hampshire’s Rafter were exceptional candidates, with political experience and a deep understanding of the issues facing voters in their districts. And they were running against MAGA Republicans—Powell’s opponent actually attended the January 6, 2021, rally where Trump falsely claimed that “emboldened radical-left Democrats” were plotting to steal “our election victory”—who struggled to appeal to mainstream voters. What the results from the latest round of special elections do provide for Democrats, however, are useful indicators regarding this fall’s statewide and state legislative elections in Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana, as well as the fast-approaching national and state contests of 2024. In particular, it’s important to recognize the ongoing potency of the pro–abortion rights stance that winning Democrats have taken.

Since the US Supreme Court attacked reproductive rights in the Dobbs decision, Democrats have benefited from increased turnout among ardently pro-choice young voters, and a swing in their direction by suburban voters—including independents and women who had historically leaned Republican. Both of those factors influenced the April victory by progressive Judge Janet Protasiewicz in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election that created a liberal majority on that court. And they’ve also been a factor in this year’s legislative races. Rafter and Powell ran as emphatic supporters of abortion rights, while Rafter’s rival was explicitly anti-choice and Powell’s foe sent mixed signals but accepted support from an anti-choice group.

Powell and Rafter, like successful Democrats in other high-profile special elections this year, did not simply tout their pro-choice stances. They positioned themselves as foes of a Republican Party that prioritizes an extreme social agenda over the practical concerns of voters. Powell put a heavy emphasis on expanding access to affordable housing in Pennsylvania, while Rafter said, “State House Democrats believe in a New Hampshire that works for everyone. As extreme Republicans in Concord passed New Hampshire’s first abortion ban without exception for rape, incest, or fatal fetal anomaly, they ignored the current energy crises which has caused our electric rates to double.”

Powell and Rafter also benefited from strong support from groups that often play on the national level. For instance, Emily’s List jumped into the Pennsylvania contest, hailing Powell as “an outspoken advocate for reproductive freedom…who will fight for their rights in the state House and not back down in the face of anti-choice extremism from Pennsylvania Republicans.”

There’s an emerging formula for winning legislative seats—and ultimately legislative chambers. It’s still a difficult pursuit that demands solid candidates, smart strategies, and resources to get the message out. But the big wins by Powell and Rafter contribute to the mounting pool of evidence that Democrats are figuring out how to get the calculus right. If they do, they have the potential to transform not just individual states but the whole of the United States.

Correction: This piece initially said that Democrats have a 121-120 majority in the Pennsylvania state House. In fact, they have a 102-101 majority.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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