The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With their party’s future on the line in the states, Democrats can’t agree on a playbook

Locked out of power in Washington, Democrats have turned their attention to trying to win back clout in the states. But they have a lot of ground to make up, not a lot of time to do it, and are running into a roadblock: themselves.

Republicans effectively control 68 of 99 state legislative chambers, and Democrats have just four elections to wrest back some of those before looking ahead to possibly even harder challenges for Congress.

They put a dent in three seats on Tuesday night, by knocking off Republicans in New Hampshire and Oklahoma, and making it to a runoff in Mississippi to try to stop Republicans from having a super-majority in the state House there.

But time is running out to pick up more seats. New 2020 census data means state lawmakers elected by then will get to set up the battlefields for state and congressional races for another decade in more than 40 states. If Republicans control most of the map, as they did last time, Democrats may not have a chance to regain control of the U.S. House for another decade.

And instead of crafting a comprehensive strategy to win back dozens of seats before it’s too late, Democrats are struggling with how to balance the rush of attention from national groups that want to play in this field.

The most prominent newcomer on the scene is a super PAC launched by Obama campaign alumni and backed by superstar Democratic consultants. First reported on by Politico, Forward Majority says it wants to raise a ton of money, play in state legislative races Democrats normally don’t, and test the latest political tools and messaging strategies on state politics. And it had floated raising $100 million to do it.

To which Democrats already chest-deep in state legislative politics say: We appreciate the attention, but that sounds like a waste of time, money and resources.

National consultants often don’t understand what it takes to win at the state level, where there are 50 sets of campaign finance laws, 50 sets of finance regulations, filing deadlines and political landscapes. In fact, when money gets dumped into states without a strategy, it could backfire.

“Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches to state legislative races never work,” said Dave Griggs, the chief political officer for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or DLCC, Democrats’ main political arm for state legislative races. “It’s highly inefficient, and it ignores the political and legal reality in states.”

David Cohen, the executive director of Forward Majority, said his group has been collaborating “very well” with grass-roots groups in Virginia, where all 100 seats in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates are up for election in November.

One look at how many seats Democrats lost in the Obama era suggests that more resources could really help Democrats, Cohen said. Democrats have lost control of 27 state chambers over the past eight years. Republicans have total power in 26 states. Democrats control just six states.

“Because there hasn’t been a national outside group like ours, we haven’t seen ongoing efforts that have been able to garner the kinds of wins that we need on a sustained basis,” Cohen said. “It’s been up and down, and, frankly, the DLCC in many ways has been fighting this battle on their own, and so we’re excited to bring something new to the table.”

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The DLCC and its independent expenditure arm point out they already have a plan. They've raised and spent about $2 million this year alone on state legislative races and have worked, successfully, with more than a dozen progressive groups to get Democrats elected, including a new Obama-backed redistricting group headed by former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. As evidenced by Tuesday's special elections, they say, their plan is working.

At the same time, Democrats already working in state politics universally acknowledge that they need more money.

Republicans have been outspending them at the state level for nearly a decade. Republicans’ state legislative counterpart raised $30 million specifically for redistricting in 2010 — that’s the cost of a U.S. Senate seat, Griggs said — and it was extremely effective.

That year, Republicans picked up 21 chambers. They controlled the drawing of nearly half of all congressional districts. And Republicans have held the majority in the U.S. House ever since.

Forward Majority wants to be a counterbalance to Republicans' dominance in the states. But money won’t fix anything if it’s not spent correctly, Democrats already playing on the state level argue. In Forward Majority's pitch to donors obtained by The Fix, it incorrectly suggests that DLCC doesn't have an outside group that can raise unlimited dollars.

“We don’t need an everything PAC,” said Greg Speed, president of national liberal nonprofit America Votes. “But we need resources and investment, and if we can bring that to the table in a focused way, the more the better.”

The tension among Democrats comes, ironically, as they are winning.

With the help of DLCC, Democrats have flipped six seats in 2017 special elections, including two on Tuesday night. They’ve outperformed November showings in nearly two dozen others. Three of the newly held Democratic seats are in Oklahoma, in districts Donald Trump won by 10 to 20 points, according to data compiled by Daily Kos.

In August came another big win. Democrats held onto a southeastern Iowa seat after a longtime legislator died, performing 30 points better than Democrat Hillary Clinton did in that district in the 2016 presidential election.

This is all building up to major state legislative battles in November. In Virginia, where the governorship is also up for grabs, a big wave could put Democrats close to control of the state House, or at least not hand Republicans a veto-proof majority. In Washington state, Democrats have a chance to win a seat that will give the party control over the entire state for the first time since 2012. A September special election in Florida could help Democrats take back the state Senate.

And that’s all building up to 2018, when most state chambers and 35 governors are up for reelection. Pile on the threat of redistricting, and it’s not hyperbole to argue that nothing short of the Democrats’ future or the next generation is on the line in the next two years of statehouse elections.

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“I consider 2018 to be of — I can’t overstate it — it’s critically important,” said Brian Weeks, political director for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

In the Trump era, almost all Democratic political operatives agree that the next two years’ worth of statehouse elections could make or break their party. But they still don’t agree on how to best to approach them, and the clock is ticking.

This post originally said Republicans effectively control 69 of 99 state legislative chambers. They effectively control 68 -- Alaska's state House is controlled by Democrats thanks to a coalition of several Republican and independent lawmakers.