Democrats Held Off the GOP in Legislative Races This Year, Again Bucking Expectations

The party gained some seats across more than 600 elections held throughout 2023, though the GOP continued its surge in the Deep South.

Daniel Nichanian | November 21, 2023

House of Representatives chamber in the Virginia State Capitol building. (gnagel via iStock)

Louisiana’s runoffs on Saturday brought the 2023 legislative elections to a virtual close, settling the final composition of all eight chambers that were renewing their entire membership this fall. That’s in addition to special elections held throughout this year.

The final result: Democrats won five additional legislative seats this year, Shorelinescripts calculated in its second annual review of all legislative elections.

That’s a small change, since there were more than 600 seats in play this year. But it goes against the expectation that the party that holds the White House faces trouble in such races. In 2021, the first off-year with President Biden in the White House, the GOP gained 18 new seats out of the roughly 450 seats that were in play, according to Shorelinescripts’ calculations. (Three special elections will still be held in December, but none is expected to be competitive.)

It also mirrors Republicans’ disappointment in 2022, a midterm cycle that saw Democrats defy recent history by flipping four legislative chambers without losing any. They pulled off a similar feat this year: Democrats held off GOP hopes of securing new chambers in New Jersey and Virginia and instead gained one themselves in Virginia, the fifth legislative chamber they’ve flipped in two years.

Still, these aggregate results mask regional differences, with Democratic candidates continuing their descent in much of the South. That too is an echo of 2022, when the GOP’s poor night was somewhat masked by their surge in a few red states like West Virginia, where Democrats still haven’t hit rock bottom; this year, Republicans surged in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Heading into the electionsResults of the electionsGain or loss for Democrats
Regular elections in the fall of 2023
Louisiana House71 R, 33 D, 1 I73 R, 32 D-1
Louisiana Senate27R, 12D28R, 11D-1
Mississippi House77 R, 42 D, 3 I79 R, 41 D, 2 I-1
Mississippi Senate36 R, 16 D36 R, 16 D0
New Jersey Assembly46 D, 34 R52 D, 28 R6
New Jersey Senate25 D, 15 R25 D, 15 R0
Virginia House52 R, 48 D51 D, 49 R3
Virginia Senate22 D, 18 R21 D, 19 R-1
Special elections in 2023
34 legislative districts nationwide24 Dem seats, 10 GOP seats24 Dem seats, 10 GOP seats0
Notes: Shorelinescripts attributed vacant seats to the party that held them most recently. The Virginia results include a House seat in which the GOP is leading pending a recount. One Virginia Senate district is included in the specials because of a race held earlier this year, and also in the regular election row. Credit to Daily Kos Elections for compiling data on the year’s special elections with major party competition.

Districts are not all created equal, with vast differences in the populations they cover in different states; the seats Democrats gained correspond on average to twice as many residents than those Republicans gained.

The results of the 2023 cycle have been dissected at length for any hints as to who will fare well in the far-higher profile races in 2024.

The encouraging case for the GOP, as laid out last week by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is that Republicans overperformed in Virginia compared to the last presidential race, even as they failed in their bid to win the legislature. But they also came close to suffering much greater losses in the state, the Center for Politics notes: Virginia’s seven tightest legislative elections this fall were all won by the GOP, all by less than two percentage points.

The encouraging case for Democrats is the national view: They’ve overperformed in special elections throughout the year—as documented by Daily Kos Elections, their nominee improved on President Biden by an average of 6 percentage points across 34 special elections—a measure that has had predictive value in the past. They also did very well this fall in Pennsylvania, the only presidential battleground that hosted a significant number of elections.

But the results of the 2023 legislative races matter first and foremost for themselves—not for what they signal for other, future elections. Just as the Democratic gains last year in Michigan and Minnesota opened the floodgates to major progressive reforms in both states, the newly-decided composition of legislative chambers will shape power and policy within Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Below are four takeaways from the elections.

1. The GOP’s state goals flail, with one major exception

These legislative races, alongside three governor’s elections, decided who will control state governments over the next two years.

Democrats denied the GOP’s bids to grab control of Virginia and Kentucky by winning the House and Senate in the former, and the governorship in the latter. In addition, Republicans hoped to break Democrats’ trifecta in New Jersey, pointing to supposed voter backlash against liberal school policies and trans students to fuel talk that they may flip the Assembly or Senate; instead, they lost ground and now find themselves down a 24-seat hole in the lower chamber.

The GOP’s best results came in Louisiana, where the party flipped the governorship to grab the reins of the state government, a result that will likely open the floodgates of staunchly conservative policy. Republicans also retained their trifecta in Mississippi by holding onto the governor’s office.

2. Abortion mattered, again

Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s Republican governor, tried to win the legislature for his party by selling his constituents on new abortion restrictions. His failure has been widely held up since Nov. 7 as the latest evidence of voter alarm about the bans that have multiplied since the Dobbs decision. But abortion also mattered in New Jersey’s campaigns this fall, with Democratic candidates arguing that their continued majority would protect abortion rights and funding.

The question, Rebecca Traister writes in NY Mag, is what Democrats do next after winning on the issue and what affirmative policies they adopt. Earlier this year, Democrats who run the Virginia Senate adopted a constitutional amendment to codify abortion rights; the measure died in the state House, which was run by the GOP but just flipped to Democrats. Scott Surovell, Senate Democrats’ incoming leader, confirmed this month that he plans to advance the amendment again now that his party controls the full legislature.

Virginia Democrats can advance the amendment while circumventing Youngkin but it would be at least a three-year process. The legislature would need to adopt it in two separate sessions separated by an election to send it straight to voters—so they’d have to do it now, then defend their legislative majorities in the 2025 elections, then pass it again in 2026, and then win a referendum that fall.

3. GOP attacks on crime fell flat, again

The GOP in both New Jersey and Virginia banked that it would make inroads by attacking Democratic lawmakers on crime, repeating a strategy that already did poorly in the 2022 midterms. Democrats won swing districts in both states in which Republicans assailed their opponents for endangering public safety.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, stresses that these elections took place in the wake of New Jersey adopting major criminal justice reforms, which the GOP tried and failed to turn against the party electorally. “New Jersey is the nation’s leading decarcerator, reducing state prison populations by more than 50 percent since 2011, and we’ve shown that decarceration is possible and crime rates across all major categories continue to decline,” he told Shorelinescripts.

Still, he wishes the lawmakers who passed the reforms would have been bolder in defending them on the trail given recent evidence they’re not politically harmful. “The lesson for candidates running in 2024 and 2025 is that reforming unjust systems and promoting public safety are not at odds with one another.”

Since their wins on Nov. 7, Virginia Democrats have chosen two new legislative leaders with a history of supporting criminal justice reforms. Incoming Speaker Don Scott is an attorney who spent years in federal prison, a fact that GOP strategists have tried using against Democrats, and he has championed issues like ending solitary confinement. Surovell, Democrats’ new Majority Leader, was a force behind the criminal legal reforms Democrats passed while they controlled the state government in 2019 and 2020. He played the lead role within his party this year in calling out Youngkin’s administration for making it harder for people with felony convictions to vote, Shorelinescripts reported this spring.

4. Competition evaporates in Louisiana and Mississippi

Just six years ago, the GOP held 86 legislative seats in Louisiana (out of 144) and 106 in Mississippi (out of 174). After the 2023 elections, they’ll hold 101 in Louisiana and 115 in Mississippi, a surge born not just from election results in recent cycles but also party switches.

Both legislatures are also disproportionately white, and both drew attention this year for targeting underrepresented Black communities. (Black voters in both states vote overwhelmingly Democratic.)

Gerrymandering is contributing to these dynamics, even if white Republicans also dominate statewide races in both states. A coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against Mississippi’s current legislative maps for diluting the voting power of Black residents, saying that both House and Senate maps lacked enough Black opportunity seats; the lawsuit argues that the state should have drawn seven more Black-majority districts across Mississippi’s two chambers. In Louisiana, the legal battles have revolved around the congressional map, which a federal appeals court recently struck down for violating the Voting Rights Act; Democrats raised similar concerns about Louisiana’s legislative maps.

“When you gerrymander people’s power away, you can’t elect candidates of choice,” says Ashley Shelton, executive director of Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a Louisiana organization that focuses on voter outreach. “We understand the power of gerrymandering: It’s not that Black people don’t care or don’t want to vote, it’s that the power of their vote has been lessened.”

Gerrymandering this fall contributed to a startling dearth of competition: Not a single legislative race in either state was decided by less than 10 percentage points between candidates of different parties. (That’s out of 318 districts!)

In fact, many districts didn’t feature any contest at all. No Democrats were even on the ballot in the majority of districts in each of Louisiana and Mississippi’s four chambers, mathematically ensuring that the party couldn’t win majorities before any vote was cast.

In Louisiana, some critics of the state Democratic establishment also faulted the party for neglecting to mount a proper campaign this fall. “I didn’t see any get out of the vote effort,” one progressive lawmaker told Shorelinescripts after the October primary, which saw the Democratic Party spend very little money.

Shelton told Shorelinescripts last week that the state’s traditional establishment similarly didn’t work to turn voters out in the lead-up to Saturday’s runoffs, which featured statewide elections for attorney general and secretary of state as well as a scattering of legislative runoffs; she saw little noise and outreach outside of nonprofit groups like hers and their partners.

“When I think about the political machines, there's no money being spent to engage voters,” Shelton told Shorelinescripts. “We can certainly create the energy that we can, but there's something to the bigger momentum and energy that comes from the machine actually working.” She added, “It's very quiet in the state of Louisiana, and that's crazy to me.”

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