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Eric Davis: Democrats made big election gains

As fuller results from last week’s elections are received, the magnitude of Democratic success is becoming more apparent.
Democratic candidates now appear poised to gain close to 40 seats in the House, which would give the Democrats 235 House seats to the Republicans’ 200. This would represent the largest Democratic seat gain in a midterm election since 1974, an election held less than three months after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency over Watergate.
Democrats picked up the governors’ offices in at least seven states. This is the largest gain of governorships by any party in a midterm election since 1994. When the new governors are sworn in, Democrats will hold between 23 and 25 of them, depending on the outcomes in Florida and Georgia.
Democrats also gained four attorney general positions. As of January, there will be Democratic attorneys general in 27 states. This is important, because state attorneys general are increasingly filing legal challenges to actions of the Trump Administration.
Nationally, more than 300 Republican state legislators lost their seats. Democrats were able to flip the majority in seven state legislative chambers.
The voters in four states approved referenda taking redistricting for congressional and state legislative seats out of the hands of legislators, and giving it to independent commissions. When the next round of congressional redistricting takes place following the 2020 census, for the House to be elected in 2022, 12 states will be using the commission system to draw district lines. At the margin, this change may result in 5 to 10 additional Democratic seats in the House nationwide, as Republican gerrymanders are replaced with fairer commission-drawn maps.
Here in Vermont, Democrats also made gains. Democrats hold five of the six statewide offices. Phil Scott is the first Republican governor in the modern era of Vermont politics (since 1962) to have no Republican colleagues in any of the other statewide elected positions. The last Republican other than Scott to have won a statewide office in Vermont was Auditor Tom Salmon in 2010. Salmon started as a Democrat, switched parties, and was re-elected as a Republican for his final term as auditor.
Both chambers of the Vermont Legislature have what are, at least on paper, veto-proof supermajorities, with 102 Democrats and Progressives in the 150-member House, and 24 Democrats and Progressives in the 30-member Senate. The small number of Republicans in the lower statewide offices and in the Legislature means the GOP will have a difficult time recruiting politically experienced candidates for future statewide contests.
However, last week’s results also give national Republicans hope for the future. The equality-of-state-representation principle governing the U.S. Senate means that the GOP could retain a Senate majority for some time by continuing to win Senate seats in small, rural, and conservative states. This year, Democratic Senate candidates nationwide won 58 percent of all votes cast for senators, but lost seats because of Republican victories in smaller states.
Similarly, the design of the Electoral College could enable President Trump to win a second term in 2020 even while losing the popular vote. Trump’s Democratic opponent could run up huge popular vote majorities in California and New York, and substantial majorities in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, while Trump wins re-election by winning narrow pluralities in states such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
One of the Democrats’ biggest challenges for 2020 will be nominating a candidate who could expand the electoral vote map by being competitive in some states that have voted consistently Republican in recent presidential elections. Two examples of such states are Arizona and Georgia, both of which are undergoing demographic changes — a younger, more educated, and more diverse electorate — that could benefit the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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