The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats plan ‘unprecedented’ effort to flip state legislative chambers in 2020 state races

A mobile billboard urges voters to cast ballots for Democrats outside Centreville High School in Clifton, Va., on Election Day, Nov. 5. (Matthew Barakat/AP)

National Democratic leaders, backed by activist groups formed in response to President Trump’s election, are planning an unprecedented push to flip legislative chambers in at least seven states next year, a major strategic shift buoyed by the party’s successful seizure of Virginia’s state government in November.

Democratic groups, labor unions and grass roots organizations say their strategy centers on funneling tens of millions of dollars into traditionally low-profile state legislative contests in an effort to create new routes for the party’s agenda and prepare for upcoming congressional redistricting. The party has largely focused on the top of the ballot during presidential election years, an approach that allowed Republicans to make gains in statehouses for decades.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on statehouse elections, has set a $50 million spending goal for 2020 — five times more than the group spent before the last round of redistricting in 2010. The group plans to target statehouses in Texas, North Carolina and several battleground states.

“We have a generational opportunity to flip state legislatures from red to blue,” said Jessica Post, the committee’s president. “We’ve seen this gridlock in Washington, that hopefully will not continue, but if it does . . . we want progress. We’ve got to see it happen in the states.”

Democratic candidates and activists still face obstacles, including competition for donations from presidential and congressional candidates. But Virginia GOP leaders, who saw the successful Democratic efforts there, are warning their colleagues in other states to get ready for a potential onslaught of Democratic resources.

“The biggest lesson for Republicans is don’t underestimate the task that is ahead of you in 2020,” said Matt Moran, the former chief of staff to Virginia’s outgoing Republican House speaker, Kirk Cox. “Everybody thinks their state is different, and their state is unique, but the reality is the environment and the money is on [Democrats’] side right now.”

Dave Abrams, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps elect GOP state legislators, said his organization understands the stakes and is prepared to respond.

“Republicans’ success nationally for the next decade depends squarely on our party’s success in the states next year,” Abrams said. “Our team is laser focused on winning these critical races.”

With money and staff already pouring into dozens of state legislative districts around country, the Democrats’ 2020 focus will serve as perhaps the biggest test yet for various left-leaning groups that formed after Trump’s election.

Many were instrumental in helping Democrats regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but now believe winning statehouses is the best way to advance an agenda that includes gun control, expanding access to health care, and protecting abortion and voting rights. It was GOP state legislators, they say, who devised many of the conservative policies that Trump later adopted as president.

“We believe Donald Trump’s success is a reflection of the poisonous movement that was built in state legislatures, and not the other way around,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator and co-founder of Future Now Fund, which hopes to spend $15 million on state races over the next year.

In 2010, when wealthy GOP donors invested heavily to oust Democrats ahead of the last round of congressional redistricting, Republicans won control of 21 additional state legislative chambers after more than 700 new GOP legislators were elected. The Republican victories gave the GOP the upper hand in drawing congressional boundaries the following year that heavily favored their candidates. In several states, voting rights advocates have challenged GOP-drawn maps in court, arguing their boundaries dilute the electoral power of minorities.

Redistricting activists brace for wall of inaction as battle moves to states

By the time President Barack Obama left office in 2017, Republicans were in the majority in two-thirds of state legislative chambers and held 33 of the nation’s governorships. But with liberal groups energized by Trump’s presidency, Democrats have been steadily clawing back power.

Over the past three years, Democrats have flipped about 435 state legislative seats, including winning control of chambers in New York, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Washington and Maine, in addition to the victories this year in Virginia. Democrats also picked up nine governorships. But Republicans still have majority control in 29 state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

DLCC leaders say their top targets next year will be flipping both chambers of legislatures in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, while also winning control of House chambers in Iowa, Texas and Michigan and the Senate chamber in Minnesota. The organization also plans to work closely with groups that plan to heavily contest races in other states.

In Florida, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has teamed up with the Forward Majority political committee to make a major push to win legislative seats in Florida. Republicans hold 73 out of 120 seats in the Florida House of Representatives and 23 of the 40 Senate seats.

But Gillum, a Democrat who narrowly lost his bid for governor last year, said Forward Majority plans to pour resources into 18 GOP-held legislative districts where statewide Democratic candidates traditionally receive at least 45 percent of the vote.

“The scale of investment that we are going to see will be an unprecedented moment in our state,” said Gillum, who vows to register and turn out tens of thousands of new voters in key districts.”

In many cases, Democratic targets for state legislative victories closely align with the expected battleground states in the presidential contest. That overlay is helping Democrats organize earlier than usual in those states, while energizing the party’s national network of volunteers, said Catherine Vaughan, a leader of Swing Left and Flippable, both of which formed after the 2016 election.

The heightened interest on the left comes after the U.S. Supreme Court decided this summer that federal courts have no role in policing states over the issue of partisan redistricting.

Despite that decision, Democrats sense opportunity to gain the upper hand in redistricting. It will be the first time in two decades that the process immediately follows a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is traditionally higher.

In response, Emily’s List announced this summer that it will also spend $20 million to try to flip state legislative chambers next year. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., is also focused on winning in states where the GOP control both the legislature and governor’s mansion.

With so many state-focused groups now vying for money, some party activists worry they will fall short of their fundraising goals. Democratic presidential and congressional candidates are also pleading for money, they note.

Democratic resources “don’t always trickle down,” said Vicky Hausman, the founder of Forward Majority.

But Post of the DLCC also points to Virginia as proof that Democratic donors are engaged in state legislative battles.

Democrats are dominating state-level races

Although final figures won’t be available until next month, a preliminary analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project found that Democratic legislative candidates in the state raised about $38 million, with more than one-fourth of the money coming from out-of-state donors. GOP candidates raised $29 million, with just 13 percent of the money coming from out-of-state.

The Democratic cash advantage in Virginia reflects nationwide trends that show Democratic legislative candidates gaining over Republicans since Trump’s election.

According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, GOP state legislative candidates raised about $141 million more in direct contributions than Democratic peers did from 2009 to 2016, during Obama’s two terms in office. So far during Trump’s presidency, Democratic candidates have outraised Republicans by about $40 million.

The figures not include independent spending by groups because many states have lax or nonexisting reporting requirements, said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the group, also known as

“And that is where the Democrats tend to lose,” she added.

By replicating the DLCC’s Virginia strategy, Post said, the group plans to target vulnerable GOP incumbents with negative advertisements months before the election, including linking some of them to Trump. The DLLC expects national Democratic super PACs — which usually focus opposition research efforts on presidential or congressional candidates — to also be engaged on closely monitoring vulnerable GOP state legislators next year.

But analysts note that Democrats will also be on the defensive in many state legislative races.

Although about 200 Republican legislators nationwide represent districts that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election, there are more than 500 Democratic incumbents representing districts Trump won, according to the DLCC.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats picked up a net of 11 House seats in 2018 after their candidates dominated in districts carried by Clinton in the increasingly Democratic Philadelphia suburbs.

Ben Forstate, a Pennsylvania political analyst, noted there are far fewer opportunities for Democrats in the eastern Pennsylvania suburbs next year. To gain a House majority, Forstate noted, Democratic candidates will have to also do well in the more Trump-friendly western part of the state.

“They now a have a map that is spread across two different geographic regions, and there are two different [ideological] sections of the party that need to do well,” said Forstate.

In Michigan, state Democratic Party chairwoman Lavora Barnes said the party also needs to make its eventual presidential nominee understand the importance of state legislative races. She noted many past Democratic nominees have focused most of their efforts on turning out voters in big cities, where most lawmakers are already Democrats.

“We just cannot make the assumption that the way we win is just turn out Democrats in some parts of the state,” Barnes said. “We also have to make sure we are reaching out to voters in even the reddest of red areas because that is how we help statehouse candidates win.”