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.
Sixteen states have published an official list of 2018 state House candidates. The above figure shows the percentage of state House districts that had at least one Democratic (blue line) or Republican (red line) state House candidate in these states since the 1980s.
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.
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).
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.