Flood of legislative candidates points to enthusiasm in both parties

Flood of legislative candidates points to enthusiasm in both parties
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Political excitement among both Republicans and Democrats has led to an explosion of candidates running for office across the country, giving voters a choice between the two parties even in areas where one side has virtually conceded recent elections.

An analysis of the 12 states where filing deadlines have come and gone shows an unprecedented number of candidates seeking public office this year — and a relative lack of uncontested races, where a general election features only one candidate on the ballot.

While that means both Democrats and Republicans are running in many races they almost certainly will not win, the goal, party strategists and political scientists say, is to field candidates in as many races as possible to take maximum advantage of a favorable political climate. 

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“Even in districts that are very difficult for us to have a chance of winning, it’s important for us to engage in the philosophical discussion of what is the appropriate policy position to take, what is the appropriate direction for the state,” said Phil Berger, the Republican president of the North Carolina state Senate. “If we didn’t have anybody, obviously you can’t win if you don’t field a candidate.”

In 2010, North Carolina Republicans fielded candidates in far more districts than did Democrats, helping the GOP capitalize on a wave that gave them the majority for the first time in more than a century.

This year, fielding candidates everywhere is especially crucial for Democrats, who hope to win back some of the hundreds of legislative seats they have lost in recent years. The party hopes for a blue wave this year, and they know a rising tide only lifts boats that are in the water.

At the federal level, more than 500 Democrats had formally filed their candidacies for Congress by the end of last year, according to data compiled by Michael Malbin, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. Of those candidates, 190 had raised at least $100,000 by the end of 2017, Malbin’s research found.

Democrats are fielding more candidates at the state level, as well.

Historically, between 35 and 40 percent of state legislative races are uncontested across the country, said Adam Myers, a political scientist at Providence College who studies legislative campaigns. That percentage is usually higher in Southern states, where Democrats don’t bother to field candidates in conservative rural areas and Republicans skip races in heavily minority urban areas.

This year, though, both sides are putting more candidates in the field.

In North Carolina, Democrats have recruited candidates in all 120 state House districts and all 50 state Senate districts, while Republicans are fielding candidates in all but one state House district. In 2016, by comparison, a third of North Carolina state House races and more than a quarter of Senate races were uncontested in the general election.

“For Democrats, I think it’s clear that they’re trying to put enough candidates on the field to take advantage of a wave that may be coming their way,” said Jonathan Kappler, a political expert who heads the center-right North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation. “The Republicans were happy to be able to rebut that, to a certain extent, by demonstrating they also have a full slate.”

In Texas, where primary elections were held Tuesday, both Republicans and Democrats fielded candidates in 14 of the 15 state Senate districts on the ballot this year. Republicans found a candidate in all 17 West Virginia state Senate seats up for election, while Democrats missed out on one. In Ohio, Democrats have a candidate running for all 17 state Senate districts, while Republicans have no candidate for just three seats.

Only a handful of state House districts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland and Oregon will be uncontested, according to filings made with state election officials. The same is true for state Senate districts in Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas.

“It is unusual for the level of contested state legislative seats to increase dramatically from one election to the next, unless redistricting is involved,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “The fact that Democrats are finding candidates to run in virtually every race in a number of states this year suggests an increased effort to regain lost legislative seats on the part of party leaders and an expectation that the political tide is running in their favor on the part of candidates.”

Democrats took lessons from Virginia, where the party dramatically increased the number of seats they hold in the state House of Delegates in 2017. The party won five of the 15 Republican-held seats in districts that were uncontested in the 2015 elections.

“You gotta play to win the game — period, point, exclamation point,” said Craig Varoga, who headed the party’s House of Delegates campaigns. “If you don’t show up, you lose.”

In some states, senior Democrats have gotten involved in the recruiting process. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) called candidates to encourage them to run. In Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump Poll: Democrats inch forward in Wisconsin MORE (D) sent staffers door to door for a state Senate candidate who won a historically Republican-held district.

Jessica Post, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said the party has reconsidered its focus. Candidates running even in rural areas where they might not win still benefit top-of-the-ticket races, even if only at the margins.

“The focus was on resourcing federal races. The focus was on resourcing the presidential campaign,” Post said of the old Democratic strategy. “And now the competing theory is, if we run great candidates in all these states in rural areas that we have to win, we’ll build the Democratic Party from the ground up.”

Republicans have benefited from running so many candidates in recent years. As GOP wave elections crested in 2010 and 2014, the party picked up almost 1,000 legislative seats once held by Democrats, including some in formerly Democratic territory. 

Matt Walter, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee, said it isn’t enough to simply run a warm body.

“Many of those candidates ran in challenging districts, with lines drawn mostly by Democrats, demonstrating that the right candidates running on the right policies achieve victory, not just meeting a filing deadline,” Walter said.