ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

Unless the Democrats wake up to the importance of winning state legislative elections, they are likely to remain a largely impotent minority in the House of Representatives and equally feeble in the state legislatures. The momentous Supreme Court decisions on the Voting Rights Act, same-sex marriage and affirmative action make winning these races all the more vital, for all these rulings deal with state action. The huge Republican victory in the 2010 election could turn out to be a gift that keeps giving.

The GOP electoral sweep in 2010 was no accident. Republicans understand the importance of the state legislative races. After the 2008 election the GOP adopted a strategy called the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP). As Karl Rove explained:

“[S]ome of the most important contests this fall will be way down the ballot in . . . state legislative races that will determine who redraws congressional district lines after this year’s census, a process that could determine which party controls upwards of 20 seats and whether many other seats will be competitive.”

Republicans focused on 107 state legislative seats in 16 states where GOP wins in four or five Democratic districts per state would enable the Republicans to re-shape about 190 congressional districts. Leading GOP strategist Ed Gillespie ran this operation. He took over the Republican State Leadership Committee, and the party poured more than $30 million into these contests. It also spent many millions on various gubernatorial contests.

REDMAP succeeded brilliantly. In 2010, the GOP netted some 700 state seats, increasing its share of state House and Senate seats by almost 10 percent, from approximately 3200 to over 3900. It took over both legislative chambers in 25 states and won total control of 21 states (legislature and governorship) — the greatest such victory since 1928. In 17 of these states, GOP legislatures controlled the congressional redistricting for 173 seats. The other five GOP states have only one congressional district or rely on an independent commission.