For the first time in 20 years, Democrats are entirely on the offensive in state legislative battles just before a redistricting cycle — and just in the nick of time for the future of their party.
This is the last election cycle before redistricting could lock them out of power in key states for another decade — and severely hamper their ability to keep their majority in the House.
After losing nearly 1,000 seats during the Obama years, Democrats need to win back as many state legislatures as possible by the end of next year before states redraw their state and congressional election districts based on new 2020 census population data.
To that end, Democrats’ state legislative campaign arm, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, is racing to pick up as many as eight to 10 chambers to add to the eight they flipped from Republicans in the 2018 election cycle. They’ve raised $10 million already, which is a record for them and more than they spent in the whole 2010 cycle, when Democrats got wiped out of power in many states. What’s more, Democrats are set up well not to lose any chambers for the second election cycle in a row.
“We have never been this well positioned in modern campaign times,” said Jessica Post, president of the DLCC.
In other words, donors and leaders in the Democratic Party have finally caught on to what Republicans have known for years: If you control state legislatures, you have the power to control Congress via the power to draw the congressional districts every 10 years.
Republicans have controlled most of the legislative map-writing for this century. They really put the pedal on the gas in 2010 state elections, where they poured millions into flipping legislative chambers with the expressed goal of drawing the district maps. (In most states, legislators draw maps based on new census data every decade, as opposed to commissioning this out to an independent group.)
Republicans’ strategy worked beautifully. In one election, they flipped more than 20 chambers, and they kept their momentum up for the next few cycles. Largely as a result, Democrats were locked out of control of the House for eight years.
Even a decade later, Democrats are at such a deficit of power today that they could be locked out of power in some battleground states to control redistricting — Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin — no matter how stellar a 2020 election they have.
“It’s not hard to be enthusiastic about the gains you can make when you’re at rock bottom,” said Dave Abrams, communications director for the Republican State Legislative Committee, pointing out that Republicans hold close to a record of state legislative chambers: 61 of 99. Public fundraising reports show that Democrats’ state legislative elections arm slightly outraised Republicans’ in 2019, which hardly ever happens. Abrams declined to share to-date fundraising data but said: “The RSLC will have the resources, infrastructure and organization to support them.”
It wasn’t until Democrats’ disastrous 2016 election, when the GOP won control of all of Washington, too, that they realized what a dire situation they were facing ahead and how little time they had left to fix it. After Barack Obama left the White House, his former attorney general started the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to call attention to the plight.
“After 2016, we started a national conversation about how you need to rebuild the party from the ground up,” Post said.
Some Democratic operatives are worried that history could repeat itself in 2020; that all their party’s money would go to the presidential race rather than granular state legislative battles, which, while small, in some states can have more impact than who’s in the White House…
by Amber Phillips