In some states, the brutally hard-fought war over how quickly to reopen the country is shaping up as a battle between GOP state legislators and Democratic governors. The former are pushing President Trump’s demand for speed, while the latter are insisting on reopening cautiously, in keeping with public health needs.
Which raises a question: How will this dispute play in this fall’s state legislative contests, which are often overlooked but are extraordinarily important, determining who controls state legislatures, state policies and matters such as voting access and redistricting?
Democrats tell me they hope to make the dispute over social distancing policies a key issue in those elections — meaning they could provide a way to hold Republican state legislators responsible for pushing for a too-rapid reopening, in keeping with Trump’s demands.
“We are going to hold them accountable in 2020,” Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me.
Post, who oversees Democratic efforts to win state legislative seats, argued that these GOP state legislators have worked to “reverse many of the public health measures that have been put into place,” a position she labeled “extreme."
These skirmishes are happening everywhere, including in crucial swing states Trump hopes to win this fall. GOP state legislators have clashed with Democratic governors over social distancing measures in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, and in Wisconsin. In those states, Democrats have gone after GOP lawmakers who tried to get those measures rolled back.
Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping to flip the state House in Michigan (which would require winning four seats), the state House and Senate in Pennsylvania (which would require winning nine and four seats, respectively), and three state Senate seats in Wisconsin, among dozens and dozens of others.
That’s part of a $50 million effort that the DLCC launched last year to win state legislative seats across the country. Yet that launch came before anyone even knew the coronavirus would become a major issue of contention among state lawmakers and governors.
Now it could play a big role in those contests.
To be sure, it will be a big challenge for Democrats to flip some of those chambers. And it’s hard to know how exactly the battle over the coronavirus and social distancing will play in these races, because so much remains unpredictable.
But one question worth watching is whether the popularity that Democratic governors have earned — in contrast with Trump, who has been sinking — could help Democrats pick up legislative seats from Republicans who have tied themselves to Trump’s demand that those governors lift their efforts prematurely.
For instance, the new Post poll finds that in Michigan, 62 percent say the state government’s handling of restrictions has been “about right,” while approval of the governor on the virus is 72 percent, and Trump’s approval on it is 39 percent. And in Pennsylvania, those numbers are 59 percent, 72 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
Meanwhile, a new Marquette Law School poll finds that in Wisconsin, 69 percent say restrictions were appropriate, while approval of the governor’s handling of the virus is 64 percent, and Trump’s approval on it is 44 percent.
The DLCC’s Post told me that as the elections get closer, Democrats will use paid media to fault Republicans for their opposition to the public health measures established by such Democratic governors. “We are going to make this a bigger issue this fall,” Post said.
“That will be reflected in our paid communications,” Post continued, adding that those ads will highlight how “Republicans have put their states at risk.”
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance, there have been thousands of deaths linked to coronavirus.
On a separate front, Democrats hope to make a big issue out of the fact that GOP state legislators have opposed the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in states such as Georgia, Kansas and North Carolina — opposition that looks a lot worse now that we’re embroiled in a pandemic.
The big picture here is that Democrats found themselves in a very deep hole on the level of the states after the Barack Obama presidency. Yet they were able to win back hundreds of state legislative seats and numerous governorships during the Trump era, regaining substantial ground, due in part to Trump’s deep unpopularity.
Now that the pandemic is upon us, Trump is requiring GOP legislators to tie themselves to his demand for a quick lifting of public health measures, no matter the consequences, a deeply fringe position. The question now is whether that will enable Democrats to regain even more ground in the states this fall.
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