NEWTOWN, Pa. — For Republicans in the states, the political warning signs keep mounting: In Virginia, it was an electoral shellacking that nearly snapped their 20-year grip on the State House. In Wisconsin, it was a midwinter rout in a special election for the State Senate, fought in a conservative district.
And in Pennsylvania, it has been an exodus of state legislators from the Philadelphia area, where more than half a dozen Republicans have opted for retirement over a strenuous campaign in 2018.
“It looks like it’s going to be a war zone,” said State Representative Gene DiGirolamo, a moderate Republican, of his native Bucks County, a spacious suburb on the New Jersey border.
As national Republicans dig in to defend their majorities in Congress in the midterm elections, party leaders across the country have grown anxious about losses on a different front: state legislatures. Over the last decade, Republicans have dominated most state capitals, enacting deep tax cuts, imposing new regulations on labor unions and abortion providers, and drawing favorable congressional maps to reinforce their power in Washington.
Yet that dominance appears to be fraying, strained by the same forces taxing Republicans in Congress. National strategists in both parties see the landscape of legislative races expanding, especially in areas around major cities where President Trump has stirred an insurrection among liberals, and college-educated voters and white women have recoiled from Republicans.
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Over the last year, Democrats have snatched away Republican seats in more than a dozen special legislative elections from Seattle and Tulsa, Okla., to Atlanta and Miami, in many cases electing female and minority candidates with strong turnout on the left.
Republicans will not be easily dislodged: In many states, Republican governors have built powerful machinery to defend their allies, and Mr. Trump remains popular enough across much of the Midwest and South to limit Democratic gains. In 31 out of 50 states, Republicans command the entire legislature; in 25 of those states, the governor is also a Republican.
Representative Darren Jackson, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina House. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in challenging incumbents, even in fairly red areas,” he said. Credit Chris Seward/The News & Observer, via Associated Press
But with some momentum behind Democrats — at least for now — the party appears positioned to make inroads in crucial legislatures, winning a new measure of relevance in state policy and perhaps limiting Republicans’ influence on congressional redistricting after 2020.
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s national hub for legislative campaigns, said Republicans were on the defensive in all but a few states. Citing Democratic turnout in recent special elections, Mr. Walter said Republicans should use the next nine months to sound the “alarm bells” for their voters.
“What we have seen in the special elections is a significant spike in the interest, engagement, spending and energy by the liberal Democrats and progressive movement,” Mr. Walter said, adding: “The spending is real. The organizational prowess is real. And the energy is real.”
That energy was on raucous display last weekend in the Bucks County borough of Newtown, where well over 100 Democrats packed into a red-brick tavern to cheer Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat seeking a State Senate seat left open by a Republican’s unexpected retirement. Before a lively breakfast crowd, Mr. Santarsiero needled Mr. Trump and hailed his fellow Democrats running for the legislature’s multiplying number of open seats.
Applauding from the front was Helen Tai, an official in nearby Solebury who is running in a May special election for the State House prompted by a Republican’s resignation. Democrats nearly swept local elections in four counties outside Philadelphia last November; Ms. Tai said the combination of Republican retirements and liberal enthusiasm had transformed the fight for the legislature.
“I wish it was a presidential year,” she said. “People want to vote. They can’t wait to vote.”
Adding to Republicans’ unease are several unresolved lawsuits that could unravel carefully drawn maps in states like North Carolina and Texas. The United States Supreme Court is expected to consider a number of cases involving gerrymandered maps this year, and Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said the group is considering new litigation against state legislative districts in the Pennsylvania courts, which voided a Republican-drawn congressional map last month.
Ms. Post said special elections over the last year had revealed “early indicators of the wave.”
In many of the biggest purple states, however, Democrats must overcome huge Republican majorities and forbidding legislative maps. In Pennsylvania, Republicans hold 120 seats in the 203-seat State House, and 34 of 50 in the State Senate.
Gov. Scott Walker at the State of the State address in Madison, Wis., last month. Republicans began last year with 20 of 33 State Senate seats, but that number recently shrank to 18. Credit Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal, via Associated Press
Though Republicans have thin majorities in a few states, like Colorado and Minnesota, the party is entrenched by gerrymandering across most of the Midwest and has long controlled Sun Belt prizes like Florida and Arizona.
In North Carolina, Republican legislators wield margins enormous enough to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, on a party-line vote in both chambers. For 2018, Mr. Cooper and state Democrats have announced a “Break the Majority” campaign, not to capture either chamber, but merely to deprive Republicans of their supermajorities.
Representative Darren Jackson, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina House, said there had been a surge in candidate recruitment, and Democrats plan to pursue more than five-dozen seats where Mr. Cooper won about 44 percent of the vote or more in 2016. They are especially hopeful about the areas around Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte — the state’s three largest cities — which resemble suburbs in other states that have turned on Republicans.
But Mr. Jackson takes an unromantic view of his party’s prospects. A screen saver on his laptop cycles through headlines from when Mr. Trump won the presidency, as a reminder that any anticipated victory can evaporate.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in challenging incumbents, even in fairly red areas,” Mr. Jackson said, cautioning: “You’ve got to have good candidates.”
Democratic legislators in several states said in interviews that they were waiting on a major trove of data related to last year’s elections in Virginia, where a coalition of educated white, young and minority voters delivered the party a 15-seat gain in the House of Delegates. State leaders say they intend to use that information to hunt for targets even in areas with unfriendly district lines.
Republicans are most concerned about a collection of big states where they hold at least one legislative chamber by a narrower majority. In Florida, they hold the State Senate with 23 of 40 seats, and in Arizona both chambers tilt Republican by five seats or fewer. Mike Gardner, a former Arizona legislator who is now a Republican lobbyist, predicted Republicans would keep power in that state, but noted surging energy in the “hatred-toward-Trump camp.”
State Representative Jose R. Oliva of Miami Lakes, a Republican in line to be speaker of the Florida House, doubted Democrats could win either chamber, but said Mr. Trump might hobble Republicans in the ultra-diverse communities in and around Miami. Democrats picked off a State Senate seat there in 2017, though they have faced their own woes, including the resignation of a state party chairman amid harassment allegations.