With the release of the 2020 census last month, the drawing of legislative districts that could in large part determine control of Congress for the next decade heads to the nation’s state legislatures, the heart of Republican political power.
Increasingly, state legislatures, especially in 30 Republican-controlled states, have seized an outsize role for themselves, pressing conservative agendas on voting, Covid-19 and the culture wars that are amplifying partisan splits and shaping policy well beyond their own borders.
Indeed, for a party out of power in Washington, state legislatures have become enormous sources of leverage and influence. That is especially true for rural conservatives who largely control the legislatures in key states like Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia and could now lock in a strong Republican tilt in Congress and cement their own power for the next decade. The Texas Legislature’s pending approval of new restrictions on voting is but the latest example.
“This is in many ways genuinely new, because of the breadth and scope of what’s happening,” said Donald F. Kettl, a scholar of state governance at the University of Texas at Austin. “But more fundamentally, the real point of the spear of Trumpism is appearing at the state and local level. State legislatures not only are keeping the flame alive, but nurturing and growing it.”
He added that the aggressive role played by Republican legislatures had much further to run.
“There’s all this talk of whether or not Republicans are a party that has any future at this point,” he said, “but the reality is that Republicans not only are alive and well, but living in the state legislatures. And they’re going to be pushing more of this forward.”
The next battle, already underway in many states, is over the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans control 26 of the legislatures that will draw political maps, compared with 13 for Democrats. (Other states have nonpartisan commissions that draw legislative districts, or have just one seat.)