State Watch

Democrats plan major investments in state legislative races

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A top Democratic group will spend as much as $50 million trying to win back state legislative seats this year, a record-breaking investment that reflects the urgency of a pending redistricting and reapportionment process that will determine control of Congress for the next decade.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) will target legislative seats in seven Republican-controlled states, where the party is within just a handful of seats of reclaiming control of one or both legislative chambers, said Jessica Post, the group’s president. Most of the states on the legislative chessboard are also key to both parties’ paths to the White House.

“We have this generational opportunity to change the composition of state legislatures while also building out this incredible infrastructure across the country to help the presidential campaign from the ground up,” Post said.

Democrats need to pick up just five seats to win back the North Carolina state Senate, and six seats to reclaim control of the state House. In Pennsylvania, Democrats are four seats from taking back the state Senate, and nine seats away from a House majority. They need four seats to flip the Michigan state House and the Iowa state House, two to reclaim the Minnesota state Senate and nine more seats to win control of the Texas state House.

The party is two seats away from controlling the Arizona state House for the first time since 1964, and three seats away from winning the state Senate for the first time since 1992.

The opportunities Democrats see this year reflect the fact that the party is still clawing its way back from the hole they dug for themselves in 2010, when the Tea Party tidal wave handed the GOP control of dozens of state legislative chambers. Republicans used those well-timed wins to draw district lines in their favor in states across the country, cementing control of many state legislatures — and the U.S. House of Representatives — for years to follow.

“It’s no surprise Democrats are excited, they’re at rock bottom and the only way is up,” said Dave Abrams, the spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), the DLCC’s counterpart. “They’ve been losing in the states for a decade.”

But the 2018 midterms that handed Democrats control of the House also helped the party claw back state legislative seats it had not won in years. A year later, Democrats recaptured control of Virginia’s General Assembly for the first time since the early 1990s, a sign, Post said, that the political winds are still blowing favorably.

Today, Republicans control legislatures in 30 states, including Nebraska’s ostensibly nonpartisan Senate. Democrats control 19 state legislatures. Only one state, Minnesota, has a legislature in which the two chambers are controlled by different parties. 

Republicans hold 3,838 of the 7,383 state legislative seats around the country, while Democrats hold 3,452 seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A handful of seats are held by independents or representatives of minor parties.

With another redistricting cycle at hand, the stakes could hardly be higher. In Texas alone, legislators will have the chance to draw 38 or 39 U.S. House districts, depending on final population counts due next year. If Republicans maintain control, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) could sign off on a map that gives his party a distinct advantage. But if Democrats snag control of the state House, they would have an important seat at the table, one that would virtually guarantee they would win more than the 13 seats they currently hold.

“Texas obviously is sort of the crown jewel of redistricting,” Post said. She pointed to a number of incumbent Republicans who have said they will not run again in 2020 — both at the federal level and in key state legislative races.

The remaining Democratic targets will help determine control of dozens of congressional seats. After the 2010 Census, North Carolina Republicans drew a district map that handed them 10 of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats, though those lines were subsequently thrown out by a court. Pennsylvania Republicans also drew largely favorable district lines that were later nixed by the state Supreme Court, and Republican-drawn lines are still in place in Michigan, where the GOP won 10 of 14 seats as recently as the 2016 elections.

Arizona’s district lines are drawn by a bipartisan commission, while Iowa’s lines are only ratified by legislators at the end of the process.

After the Republican sweep of 2010 and the subsequent advantage the party made for itself, both sides are taking the upcoming redistricting period more seriously than in the past. The DLCC already has more than 40 staffers working across the country, and both the DLCC and the RSLC have raised record sums.

The RSLC and a sister organization said earlier this month they had raised $19 million in 2019, an off-year record.

A constellation of outside groups are also recognizing the importance of what can otherwise be sleepy down-ballot races. In Virginia, groups like the League of Conservation Voters, Everytown for Gun Safety and EMILY’s List poured millions into Democratic campaigns. Those groups, and their equivalents on the right, plan similar splurges this year.

Republicans and Democrats are conscious of the impacts the top of the ticket will have on their abilities to win legislative races that can be easily drowned out. The GOP’s success in 2010 came in a midterm election, when turnout was much lower than the millions more who will turn out in a presidential year. President Trump’s presence on the ballot will help drive Republican turnout in some places, but he will hurt in others where his popularity lags.

Democrats know, too, that some of their presidential candidates would have a different impact down the ballot should they become the nominee.

“We do everything that we can to make sure that our candidates are differentiated from the Democrats at the top of the ticket,” Post said.

Tags Arizona Donald Trump Michigan Minnesota Nebraska North Carolina Pennsylvania Redistricting State legislatures

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