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The Daily Need

GOP wins big, but statehouse victories may be bigger

Republicans routed Democrats from key battlegrounds on Tuesday, expanding their influence in the Senate and capturing control of the House of Representatives. But their success at the state level, including victories in hotly contested gubernatorial races, may be even more meaningful, allowing Republicans to reshape congressional and state legislative districts across the country and consolidate their gains for at least a decade.

As Need to Know reported last week, donors and outside interest groups have poured millions into state-level battles across the country, hoping to win control of enough legislative chambers to influence the decennial reapportionment process, in which states redraw the lines of congressional and state legislative districts to reflect the results of the most recent census.

According to the Republican State Leadership Committee, those efforts proved successful: Republicans won control of at least 19 state legislative chambers previously controlled by Democrats, and now control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion in several key battleground states, including Ohio and North Carolina. Republicans are also on the verge of seizing power in hotly contested states where Democrats have previously controlled all the levers of power: In New York, for example, Republicans claimed they had won a narrow majority in the state Senate, thwarting Democratic attempts to exert full control of the redistricting process there (Democrats dispute that claim, and the official result won’t be available until next week).

The results at the state level could fundamentally reshape the electoral map. As Justin Levitt at the Election Law Blog writes, Republicans are now likely to control the redrawing of as many as 189 congressional districts, up from 95 ten years ago. Democrats will control the redrawing of just 26 congressional districts, down from 121 in 2001. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats control both chambers of the legislature in just 16 states after Tuesday’s midterm elections; Republicans control both houses of the legislature in 25 states.

The most obvious impact of this shift in power is that Republicans will now control the fates of new congressional districts that are likely to be added in states like Texas, which may gain as many as four new seats in the House of Representatives, or districts that will likely be erased from the map in states like Ohio, which is slated to lose two House seats. Republicans also won veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Florida state legislature, which will likely control the addition of two new congressional districts in that state.

The second, and perhaps equally important, takeaway from Tuesday’s elections is that Republicans will also control the reapportionment of a large number of state legislative districts as well. Control of some closely divided legislative chambers in states like New York may well hinge on which seats are added or erased in the redistricting process. And consolidating gains in statehouses has a multiplier effect of sorts: It ensures that the party in power will control the redrawing of congressional district lines for years to come.

“The key thing to recognize is that it’s not only congressional districts that were at play, that indeed state legislatures have to draw their own districts. And so that has a lot to say in terms of the political makeup of the states themselves,” said Kimball Brace, a political demographer and president of Election Data Services, which studies the redistricting process. “Certainly the Republicans were looking at shaping the process not only at the congressional level but at lower levels also.”

Brace cautioned, though, that the results from Tuesday’s elections may not necessarily be settled. In states like Florida, Republicans may control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion — the “three legs of the stool,” as they are often called — but redistricting fights often end up in the courts, and state parties are likely to engage in long, protracted legal battles over the redrawn state and congressional maps that may not end for years.

“Ultimately, they’re subject to court cases also, and so you’re going to end up with court cases dealing with the local kind of contests at some point in time,” Brace said. “Really, it actually is a four-legged stool, because the courts have that fourth leg.”

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