Dems aim for state legislatures to win back the House

Dems aim for state legislatures to win back the House
© Getty Images

Devastating losses in state legislative elections across the country in 2010 and 2014 have put Democrats at a historic disadvantage — one from which they must extricate themselves if they hope to control the U.S. House of Representatives any time in the near future.

The fight to recover those lost seats begins this year, when more than 5,900 state legislative seats are up for grabs in November. Both parties are eyeing about 16 legislative chambers where they believe narrow majorities are at risk.

ADVERTISEMENT

Control of state legislative chambers matters in the larger fight for the House: In 34 states, legislatures draw congressional district lines after the decennial Census. If one party controls the legislature and the governor’s mansion, it can draw district boundaries that give them a distinct advantage.

Consider North Carolina, where Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2010 — and total control of the redistricting process. After redrawing district lines, Republican candidates won nine of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats in 2012 — even though Democratic candidates statewide won 80,000 more votes than did Republican candidates.

Now, three cycles before the next redistricting process, Democrats find themselves in a deep hole: Republicans control 69 of the 99 state legislative chambers in America, and Nebraska, which has a nominally nonpartisan unicameral legislature, is functionally controlled by Republicans.

Republicans have total control of the redistricting process in 20 states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and North Carolina. Democrats have total control of the redistricting process in just four states, only one of which — Illinois — is home to a significant number of Republican members of Congress.

Winning back state legislative seats “will help us ensure that we have more than a seat at the table, that we’ll be able to determine what that table looks like,” said Aaron Ford, the Democratic leader of Nevada’s state Senate.

Democrats have decent chances to win 11 Republican-held legislative chambers. Six of those chambers, state Senates in Colorado, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, would change hands if Democrats are able to win only a single seat.

Democrats hope to make more substantial gains in the Maine Senate and in state House chambers in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

For Democrats, ending this year’s elections with 40 state legislative chambers would be a victory, party strategists say.

The party plans to tie GOP candidates to Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I will deliver State of the Union 'when the shutdown is over' Former NYPD commander claims Trump got special treatment for gun licenses Colbert starts petition for Cardi B to give State of the Union rebuttal MORE, who is viewed unfavorably by key voting blocs, especially white women in suburban districts. Democrats have their eyes on a few seats in Colorado’s Jefferson County, just outside Denver; the Portland suburbs in Maine; the Hudson Valley and Long Island in New York; and seats that ring Puget Sound in Washington.

Though Republicans hold a 119-84 majority in Pennsylvania’s House, Democrats believe Trump is unpopular enough that his name on the ballot will help them in a significant number of suburban and exurban seats around Philadelphia’s Collar Counties.

“This Trump effect has expanded the map here in Nevada for us as well,” Ford said. “It’s going to help us increase our voter turnout, it’s going to make us that much more viable among women and minority voting blocs.”

Republicans, however, say Trump’s appeal to some voters — especially white, working-class men in Rust Belt states — will help them. Party strategists are more concerned that if the presidential contest becomes a blow-out in favor of Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonErnst opens up about past assaults Clinton shares numbers of senators, encourages people to call them to end shutdown Harris Wofford’s service legacy MORE, it will depress GOP turnout, costing the party more seats down the ballot.

“The whole idea of the Trump impact skews differently in different places,” said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “We don’t have the same sky-is-falling viewpoint that has become fashionable.”

Republicans, too, have opportunities to make gains: In Iowa, Democrats hold the Senate by a two-seat margin, and Republicans hope to pick up seats in western Polk County, outside of Des Moines. Democrats hold slim majorities in the Colorado and Washington state Houses as well.

Most tantalizing for the GOP is Kentucky’s state House, where Democrats hold a 53-47 majority. The chamber is the last in the South to be held by Democrats, and voters in 26 districts held by Democrats voted Republican Matt Bevin into the governor's mansion in 2015. A super-PAC closely tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAir travel union leaders warn of 'unprecedented' safety risks as shutdown continues On The Money: Shutdown Day 33 | Fight over State of the Union | Pelosi tells Trump no speech on Tuesday | Trump teases 'alternative' address | Trump adviser warns shutdown could hurt growth | Mulvaney seeks list of vulnerable programs Demonstrators protesting shutdown arrested outside McConnell's office MORE plans to spend heavily to win those seats this year.

State legislative seats are often vulnerable to electoral waves. In 2010, Republicans picked up 680 state legislative seats, or nearly 10 percent of all the legislative seats in the nation. 

But parties can hold on to tenuous majorities even against broader political headwinds. Democrats held control of Colorado’s legislature in 2004, even as President George W. Bush carried the state’s electoral votes. Republicans currently hold majorities in 23 legislative chambers in states President Obama won twice.

“Straight ticket voting is more prevalent [today], but you can see many examples where the top of the ticket went a different way than the bottom of the ticket,” said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a Republican group that bolsters state legislative candidates.

Beyond winning chambers, both parties hope to cut into the other side’s heavy majorities in key states. Democrats have little hope of winning control in North Carolina and Florida, though they hope to whittle the GOP’s supermajorities. Republicans believe cutting into Democratic advantages in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts will give Republican governors more leverage to push their agendas.

Both parties say they are trying to put the other side on defense by running candidates in districts that often go uncontested. But there is a long-term trend toward less competition: This year, just 57 percent of the 5,920 seats up for election have contenders from both major parties.

“There are only a couple of ways to run,” Ford said: “Unopposed or scared.”

This report was updated on Sept. 6 at 10:45 a.m.