JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Democrats looking to regain a foothold in state capitols largely led by Republicans had anticipated flipping control of up to a dozen legislative chambers during the last presidential election. It didn’t work out that way.
As Republicans remain in overwhelming control of state legislatures, Democrats are doubling their spending for this year’s state House and Senate elections. It’s a renewed and increasingly urgent attempt to put a dent in the Republican ranks before it’s too late to influence the next round of redistricting, which is set to occur after the 2020 Census.
“To us, the next decade is on the ballot in November,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is being aided by former President Barack Obama and led by his former attorney general, Eric Holder.
Voters will be deciding more than 6,000 state legislative races in a November midterm election held in the pervasive shadow of President Donald Trump and high-profile contests for the U.S. Senate and House, as well as 36 governorships.
Of particular importance are more than 800 races spread across about two dozen states where voters will be electing state lawmakers to four-year terms in which the winners could play a role in approving new congressional or state legislative districts.
State legislatures, which form the grassroots of the political parties, appear to have a greater percentage of Democrats on this year’s general election ballots than at any point since at least 1992, according to research by the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Saint Louis University political scientist Steve Rogers, who focuses on state legislative elections.
“I would attribute it to Trump,” Rogers said. “When the president is less popular, members of the opposition party are much more likely to run.”
Republicans remain hopeful they can rebuff a potential blue wave. In many states, candidates will be running in districts drawn by Republicans after the 2010 Census with boundaries shown by statistical analyses to benefit Republicans.
Partisan control is at stake in more than a dozen closely divided state legislative chambers.
All told, national Democratic and Republican groups are targeting chambers in half the states. That includes some where they want to cut into the opposing party’s dominance to deny veto-proof supermajorities or position themselves for a takeover attempt in 2020, the final election before redistricting.
In many states, new districts will be drawn by state lawmakers and approved or vetoed by governors. In other places, governors or legislative leaders will appoint special panels to do the task. If one party controls the redistricting process, it can draw maps that give it an advantage for the decade to come.
Republicans generally won the last redistricting battle.
During the 2010 elections, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent about $30 million to help flip control of 21 state legislative chambers just in time for redistricting. Under those subsequent maps, Republicans posted a net gain of more than 950 state legislative seats during Obama’s presidency.
The GOP now controls two-thirds of the 99 legislative chambers across the country. It has full control of both chambers and the governor’s office in three times as many states as Democrats.
Since Trump’s election, Democrats have regained a net of 36 state legislative seats through general elections in Virginia and New Jersey and special elections elsewhere. That’s a reversal of less than 4 percent of the Republicans’ gains, a modest amount that nonetheless has been touted by Democrats eager to highlight momentum.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has doubled its spending from 2015-16 to a planned $35 million this election cycle. Its goal is to flip between eight and 10 Republican-run chambers. It notes that a gain of just 17 total seats could reverse eight state Senate chambers – in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin.
One of the Democrats’ top targets is in the Denver suburbs, where state Rep. Faith Winter is challenging Republican Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik in a district that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points over Trump two years ago.
Winter said she has no particular beef with Martinez Humenik; the two even have co-sponsored bills. But Winter said legislation related to affordable housing and climate change would stand a better chance if the Democratic-led House weren’t paired with a Republican-run Senate.
“I believe that Colorado would be better off – and our voters would be better off – with Democratic leadership in the Senate,” said Winter, one of 39 candidates endorsed by Obama in six states that are important to the Democrats’ redistricting strategy.
Martinez Humenik has emphasized her willingness to work across the political aisle as she tries to hold on to a seat that swung control of the chamber to Republicans during the 2014 election. Her campaign website declares: “Focused on Results, not Political Parties.”
“I’m hopeful that what is going on in Washington, D.C., does not affect us here at the state level,” she said.
Both parties also have targeted the Wisconsin Senate, where Democrats picked up two seats in special elections this year to narrow the Republican advantage to 18-15.
One of November’s key races pits Democrat Kriss Marion, who gained attention by successfully suing for the right to sell homemade cookies without state regulation, against Republican Sen. Howard Marklein. The rural southwestern Wisconsin district swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
Marklein notes that he fared better as an Assembly candidate than the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 and better in 2014 than Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is heading the ballot again this year.
“My guess is my hard work is going to result in me outperforming the top of the ticket again,” Marklein said.
But Marion got more votes than Marklein in the August primaries, when both were unopposed.
“The momentum is certainly with us and with turnover,” said Marion, adding: “We have to win this seat if we’re going to flip the Senate.”
Wisconsin is one of five states – along with Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – targeted by the Republican State Leadership Committee as essential to protect in its redistricting strategy because they have sent 18 more Republicans to Congress than Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have one-quarter more registered voters than Republicans statewide, yet Republicans won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats in three straight elections before the state Supreme Court ordered new political maps for this year’s elections, citing unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering by GOP lawmakers.
The Republican State Leadership Committee plans to spend as much as $50 million on state legislative and down-ballot statewide races during the 2017-18 election cycle. That’s up from about $38 million each of the past two election cycles.
“The fact that Republicans have had so much success doesn’t have to do with our lines, it has to do with running better candidates who go out and govern in a way that’s having a positive impact in their states,” said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Though generally on the defensive, Republicans also have hopes of flipping some legislative chambers. Among their targets is the Connecticut Senate, where a Democratic lieutenant governor currently has tie-breaking power over an 18-18 partisan split. The outcome could come down to who is more unpopular – Trump or outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, who has presided over a strained budget and sluggish state economy.
Republican state Rep. Mark Tweedie has been making the case for change as he challenges Democratic Sen. Steve Cassano in a potentially pivotal race for control of the chamber.
“The Republicans need to take the majority in the House, the Senate and the governor in order to turn this state around,” Tweedie said.
But Cassano thinks Trump, whom he describes as “an embarrassment,” could have a greater influence on the election without Cassano even having to make the president a campaign issue.
“If I’m going door-to-door or I’m going to a meeting … people mention Trump,” Cassano said. “I have a simple response: `Make sure you vote.“’
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