GOP fears steep losses in state legislatures

LOS ANGELES — Republicans hoping to hold on to their majorities in state legislative chambers across the country are nervously eying President Trump’s anemic approval rating, concerned that a wave of voter anger could undo years of gains.
In interviews at the National Conference of State Legislators’ annual meetings last week, Republican leaders from purple and red states said they were worried that their members — most of whom are little-known even inside their own districts — are most vulnerable to an electoral atmosphere that even slightly benefits Democrats.
“There is more Democratic enthusiasm than I have seen in the last few cycles. That’s a reality I can’t ignore,” said Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly. “Almost everybody has an opinion on national politics today. Even if you’re totally uninformed, you still have an opinion.”
After notching major gains in 2010 and 2014, when Republican waves cost President Obama’s party about 1,000 state legislative seats across the country, Republicans control both legislative chambers in 31 states. 
They hold a total of 68 of the country’s 99 legislative chambers, including Nebraska, which is ostensibly nonpartisan but is in practice controlled by Republicans.
Democrats, by contrast, control both the state House and Senate in just 15 states and 25 legislative chambers overall, including Connecticut, where the Democratic lieutenant governor casts tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided state Senate.
Party control of a substantial number of legislative chambers sits on a razor’s edge. Republicans control legislative chambers in swing states like Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or fewer seats. They control chambers in Florida, Iowa, West Virginia and South Carolina by margins of five to 10 seats.
Many legislators pointed to Trump, whose approval rating stands between 41 percent and 45 percent in recent reputable polls. While they praised Trump and his accomplishments on the record, many privately said his leadership style and polarizing nature would make their reelection bids more difficult.
State senators and representatives, who raise and spend just a fraction of the money spent on U.S. House or Senate races, are uniquely vulnerable to national trends, even if they ultimately have little say over federal policy or the president’s agenda.
“The drama around D.C. does sometimes weigh into the equation,” said Jeanette Nunez, a member of Florida’s House Republican leadership team. “There’s this air of anti-elected official, anti-career politician.”
Elijah Haahr, a member of Republican leadership in the Missouri House, said Trump will aid the GOP in certain districts — but that his members will have to talk about their own accomplishments in Jefferson City.
“We can go to voters and say, ‘We cut your taxes and we did it in a fiscally conservative way,’” Haahr said. “We have a broader coalition than we used to. That old school Reagan Democrat has returned to the fold.”
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which raises and spends money on these low-level races, has spotlighted state Senate chambers in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Florida; in those eight chambers, Democrats are just a combined 17 seats away from winning control.
A wave of special elections that Democrats have captured from Republicans in recent months has exacerbated the sense of dread among GOP leaders. Since President Trump took office, Democrats have won 24 seats formerly held by Republicans in special elections, while Republicans have flipped only four seats the other way.
“There’s always challenging environments out there, and you have the long-term historical trends that you have to be aware of,” said Matt Walter, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee. “There are people who want to have a national conversation, to the extent that that ultimately winds up benefitting them.”
Some of those races that Democrats won came in deeply conservative districts Trump won by wide margins in 2016, including states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin.
“There is unmatched Democratic volunteer enthusiasm out there,” said Jessica Post, who heads the DLCC.
Democrats cautioned they still have hard work to do in the three months before Election Day. Some said that Trump’s outsized presence in politics today will make his impact on the election unavoidable. 
“Complacency is our number one enemy,” said Brian Egolf, the Democratic Speaker of the New Mexico House. Trump “is historically unpopular. The more he keeps it up, the more people are encouraged to restrain him.”
Others said they planned to avoid Trump as an electoral issue, focusing instead on kitchen table issues concerning everyday Americans.
“We have to continue to speak to average people about what average people care about,” said Jason Frierson, the Democratic Speaker of the Nevada Assembly. “I’m not interested in talking about the president.”
And a few Democrats worry about some liberal issues that factions within the party are taking up, from offering “Medicare for all” to abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There are a certain percentage of voters who will be scared away,” said Anthony Rendon, California’s Democratic Assembly Speaker. “We’re a pretty diverse party with a lot of cleavages.”
Republicans are not bereft of hope. Walter pointed to 400 seats held by GOP state legislators that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, a sign that Republicans can survive even in adverse conditions. 
Democrats have their own narrow majorities to defend, albeit mostly in blue states like Connecticut, Washington, Oregon and Delaware. One exception is Nevada, a swing state that is the focus of tremendous outside money as the two parties battle over a governorship, a Senate seat and two open House seats.
Both sides said they will urge their candidates to look forward and to offer voters solutions rather than re-litigating races past.
“We have the ability break through some — not all, but some — of the political division that we see these days,” Wisconsin’s Vos said. “Two-thirds of your campaign should be about discussing the future, and one-third should be about your past.”
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