Democrats seize on protests, pandemic in push to flip statehouses

Democrats are looking to seize upon the issues of racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic in their effort to take back control of state legislature seats across the country. 

While Democrats have had a number of victories at the state legislature level during the Trump administration, they have continuously lagged Republicans since the Obama presidency. 

However, the party feels that they will be able to tap into the mood surrounding the nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality as well as the pandemic.

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Democrats say they plan to highlight the roles that local and state officials can take in bringing about reforms on these critical national issues at a time when voters are keen for action.

“For most people, they see Washington, D.C., the D.C. part, as a dysfunctional city,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “And so they use their local platform to implement and push for change that will grow from the bottom up. The closer you are to the people, the closer the people are to you when it comes to government.”

Republicans control roughly 52 percent of state legislature seats across the country, while Democrats hold 46 percent. Republicans hold majorities in 59 chambers, and Democrats have majorities in 39. 

The current Democratic presence in state legislatures is a marked improvement from 2010, when the party was outspent by Republicans and lost 700 seats in a single night. 

However, the tide took a sharp turn in 2018, when Democrats flipped state legislative chambers and more than 300 state House and Senate seats. The momentum continued in 2019, when the party won control of the House of Delegates and the state Senate. 

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is pouring $50 million into their effort to flip state legislatures in 2020, homing in on states like Texas, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

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The committee raised more than $6.4 million in the first quarter of 2020, marking a 30 percent increase from the first quarter of 2018. 

Democrats attribute the improvement, in part, to voters’ reaction to the state of national politics under President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE's administration. 

“The campaign environment as dictated by the national party leaders is very determinative in terms of turnout,” said Kurt Fritts, a Democratic strategist specializing in state legislative races. “What we have seen is that Democratic voters are very enthused. We expect extremely high turnout [in 2020].” 

Democratic enthusiasm has been driven by Trump’s plummeting approval ratings, as well as their disapproval to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the U.S. after the police killing last month of George Floyd. 

A Gallup poll released last week showed Trump’s approval rating drop to 39 percent. The same poll showed 42 percent saying they approved of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Additionally, a CNN survey released last week showed that 60 percent said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of race relations. 

“Folks are reacting to Trump, and not in a good way. So as a consequence, you’ve got very high Democratic turnout,” Fritts said. 

Democrats, who successfully campaigned on health care in 2018, are continuing to use the message two years later amid the pandemic while advocating for police reform and addressing the social justice issues affecting minority voters.

“So many of our Democratic donors are outraged about the federal government’s response to COVID-19, and it’s now literally a life or death election,” said DLCC President Jessica Post. 

Florida state House Rep. Shevrin Jones (D), who is running for state Senate, said candidates need to be prepared to present a game plan on how they will combat racial injustice in the U.S. 

“They [voters] are going to ask them [candidates] what is your plan to bring an end to the greatest pandemic of this country, and that’s racial injustice and police brutality,” Jones said. “What are you going to do about the police violence that’s happening in our country?” 

“If candidates are not willing to address the issue head on and have the uncomfortable conversation, they might lose in this climate,” he continued.

A number of Democratic candidates have explored activism, such as taking part in protests or working with community groups, as part of their campaigns, given the national climate. 

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“All organizing is local,” said David Cohen, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a group that works to elect Democrats at the state level. “I think campaigns need to be learning from that.” 

“We tend to, I think, separate the activism we’re seeing right now from political activism and campaigns,” Cohen said. “Campaigns need to be thinking about how they are part of this social movement.” 

Democrat Kayser Enneking, who is running for state House in Florida's 21st District, has participated in protests calling attention to racial injustice in the U.S., while Brandy Chambers (D), who is running in Texas’s 21st state House District, has worked with the local NAACP chapter in her area to go over her specific policy proposals. 

The nationwide attention on racial injustice has also forced Democratic candidates to reevaluate their own policy platforms so that racial equality and justice, in particular, are priorities. 

Chambers has focused on police accountability, bail reform and imprisonment for nonviolent offenses. 

“We need to figure out how to lay a ground where it’s more equal and proportional to the actual offense,” Chambers said. 

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Enneking, who also works as an anesthesiologist, has chosen to focus on the economic and racial disparities in the health care system. 

“This is just another aspect of where we have such inequality in this country,” Enneking said. “My push to get Medicaid expanded in Florida I think falls in line with the idea that everyone in this country deserves a healthy start.” 

Strategists say that voters are looking for candidates who listen and provide understanding, especially in regard to nationwide discussions and protests on racial injustice. 

“I think what people figured out from all of these things happening is that your voice matters more so when you have someone who recognizes your voice, who can speak to and understand your sets of experiences, and I think that’s really going to play a big role in how some of these local elections shape out,” Seawright said.