‘I get my butt kicked every 20 minutes’: Life in a state legislature’s superminority

While lawmakers expressed that most day-to-day dealings between the parties tend to be peaceful, sometimes tensions between the supermajority and superminority can build to high-profile stunts fueled by pent-up hostility. In Oregon, Republicans staged a weeks-long walkout to boycott business in the state Senate. In Tennessee, GOP leadership expelled two Democrats for disrupting House rules when protesting gun violence.

“I’ll put it to you bluntly – it really sucks,” said state Sen. Mike Caputo, one of West Virginia’s three Senate Democrats.

Caputo has served in the West Virginia legislature for nearly thirty years and witnessed his party swap from a supermajority to superminority. While West Virginia is an extreme example, it still represents the story of dwindling Democratic power throughout the U.S. over the last decade as Republicans launched a nationwide state strategy following the election of former President Barack Obama that handed them control of the majority of state legislatures.

Democrats have seen some recent gains in statehouses, however. The party flipped legislatures in key states like Michigan and Minnesota and picked up seats in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

But Republicans last November and into this year have maintained their grip on most state chambers and solidified their power throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. The GOP gained supermajorities in chambers in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Carolina. Nationwide, Republicans hold 55 percent of the 7,000-plus state legislative seats, according to NCSL.

Interviews with nearly a dozen lawmakers serving in a superminority revealed that they share a common strategy for trying to pass or defeat legislation: capitalize on factions within the majority party and try to pick off potential allies, whether its progressive Democrats or conservative Republicans.

“You can swing more power by making alliances to kill legislation,” said Gierau, the minority whip who represents Jackson, Wyoming, the tourist haven and liberal oasis. “You measure your success by what you can kill more than what you can pass.”

Gierau, charged with whipping the votes of his lone fellow Democrat, often ends up whipping Republicans as well. He is the more conservative of the two Senate Democrats and has been called a “DINO” (Democrat in Name Only). Gierau keeps a dinosaur figurine on his desk.

In prior sessions, Wyoming Democrats have had luck teaming up with moderate Republicans to vote down legislation restricting abortion rights. But that success came to a halt this year. In March, Wyoming became the first state to ban medication abortions and later passed laws restricting nearly all abortions.

“I get my butt kicked every twenty minutes down there,” Gierau said. “We gotta pick ourselves off the floor. We have to take defeat and move forward and keep doing it. We can’t just sit there crying in our beer.”

The day-to-day business of state legislatures is fairly mundane and usually bipartisan. But superminority Democrats in multiple states said in interviews that they felt deep discouragement this year over their inability to do much about recent controversial culture war fights. Republicans have stirred a national debate about transgender rights as dozens of states considered legislation curtailing the ability for trans people to access health care and other restrictions limiting their public life.

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