Democracy Dies in Darkness

Monkey Cage | Analysis

Democrats are contesting more state legislative seats than they have in decades.

March 21, 2018 at 5:00 AM

Virginia House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) climbs the stairs past a statue of Thomas Jefferson on Feb. 8 as he heads toward the House of Delegates, inside the State Capitol in Richmond. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Everyone’ is talking about whether Democrats can take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and about the record number of candidates running for the 435 House seats up for election this fall.

Less noticed is the same phenomenon at the state level. In November, 6,066 state legislative seats are up for grabs, and more candidates — particularly on the Democratic side — are running for state legislative seats than have in decades.

Far more candidates are running in 2018 than in recent elections. In fact, more Democrats are running than in any election since 1982. Democrats, for example, ran candidates in fewer than half (82 of 180) Georgia state House districts in 2016, not enough to win a majority, even had all of them won. But in 2018, Democrats are running in 121 districts. Democrats are unlikely to take control of the Georgia statehouse — but that’s at least possible this year. After all, few observers expected that the Virginia General Assembly majority would be decided by a coin flip last year — which happened in part because Democrats ran in 88 of the state legislature’s 100 districts. You can’t win if you don’t run.

The black line indicates the predicted probability of a challenger to state legislative incumbents affiliated with the president’s party under different levels of presidential approval based on 1991-2014 elections.

Democrats are running in record numbers at least partly in the hope of riding an anti-Trump wave, as Conor Lamb did last week in Pennsylvania. Running against an unpopular president is a familiar strategy in both congressional and state legislative politics. Using data from the 1991 to 2014 elections, the figure above shows the predicted probability that a state legislative incumbent affiliated with the president’s party will face a challenger when presidential approval is at different levels (For details of model please see my research, here).

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With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a prime opportunity for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Related: [How will you know if there’s E. coli in your marijuana? No one’s figured out how to test and regulate it yet.]

The decreasing black line shows that, as a president becomes more popular, his state legislative co-partisans face fewer challengers. With President Trump relatively unpopular, as you can see at the red vertical line, Republicans should expect to face more challengers than they have in recent elections.

With an unpopular president to run against and historic numbers of candidates running, Democrats are trying to win back the 900-plus seats they lost in state legislatures during the Obama administration. Voters still need to cast their ballots, but again, you can’t win if you don’t run.

Steven Rogers is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University whose research and teaching focus on American politics, with special attention to state legislative elections.

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