WASHINGTON ― Democrats are finally paying attention to state politics.
Over the past few years, major donors, national Democrats, the White House and state officials have begun organizing to win back state houses that have been dominated by Republicans since 2010.
And even as the presidential race tightens nationally, Democrats are increasingly confident the party will be able flip a significant number of state legislative chambers, riding a wave of disgust with GOP nominee Donald Trump. At least 14 state House or Senate chambers are well within reach, according to a Democratic memo circulated this week.
Presidential election years are better for Democrats, as the party’s voters tend to sit out midterm cycles, when Republicans rack up big wins down-ballot at the state level. And 2014, with ISIS sweeping across the Middle East and the country panic-stricken over Ebola, was a particularly bad year for Democrats, meaning a sizable number of blue seats are now in Republican hands, ripe for retaking.
As Congress has become snarled in dysfunction, power has shifted laterally to the White House and the Supreme Court, and has devolved downward to states. Republicans have made major gains there, and have enacted an often-times extreme conservative agenda that voters are now reacting against. (In Kansas and Louisiana in particular, where the most extreme experiments played out, the states have become utter basket cases ― so much so that Louisiana recently elected a Democratic governor.)
State-level races are also gaining importance with the approach of 2020, when elections will determine who draws future district lines based on the next census. In 2010, the tea party wave delivered most of the country’s state legislatures to Republicans, who used the wins to gerrymander state-level and congressional districts. Those districts mean it’s much more difficult for Democrats to take back the U.S. House. In 2012, for instance, more people voted for Democratic congressional candidates than Republican ones, but Republicans still comfortably control the House.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which coordinates state-level efforts, sees prime opportunities in the following 14 states. At the same time, Democrats are playing defense in some places, in danger of losing their control of the Kentucky House and the Iowa Senate.
Republicans have a six-seat advantage here, but Latino registration is surging across the state in reaction to the racism espoused by Trump and his prominent supporter, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who is facing federal investigation for racial profiling. Democrats would need to flip four seats to control the chamber, 16-14.
One GOP incumbent, Jeff Dial, was already upset in a primary by conservative challenger Frank Schmuck, giving Democrats hope of claiming the seat. (It also gave the world this headline: “Schmuck upends Dial in Republican Senate primary election.”)
Republicans control the chamber by one seat, following the stunning NRA-driven recall of two Democratic senators in 2013, payback for gun control legislation. But Democratic activists are buoyed by a dramatic upset in November, which saw three conservatives recalled from the Jefferson County Board of Education, in suburban Denver. The board members had been pushing hard against the teachers union, aiming to privatize schools and shift toward a charter model. Jefferson County is now home to Republican state Sen. Laura Woods, who is fighting for her political life. If that same organization can pick up one seat, Colorado’s Senate belongs to Democrats.
EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democrats, has endorsed three candidates in the Colorado Senate, and made flipping the chamber a priority of its Focus 2020 project. One of them, Rachel Zenzinger, is running against Woods, and trying to yoke her to Trump ― which isn’t terribly hard to do.
Rick Palacio, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, did the same in a statement to HuffPost. ”Candidates like Rachel Zenzinger are running to bring people together on these issues instead of running on the fear and divisiveness we hear from candidates like Donald Trump and Laura Woods. We are confident that come November we will flip the Senate,” he said.
Republicans have a 14-seat advantage in the lower chamber, and Trump leads in the state. But Democrats see an opportunity. Republicans are protecting five open Republican seats in districts President Barack Obama carried in 2012. If they win all five, they still need three more to flip the chamber. “Several targeted swing districts are suburban and home to highly-educated, middle-income families ― a voting bloc that has been skeptical of Donald Trump,” the DLCC memo reads, hopefully.
Republicans have a five-seat margin in the state Senate, meaning Democrats need to flip three seats. They believe they have five legit pickup opportunities, where Obama won with at least 55 percent of the vote in 2012. Helpfully for Democrats’ political prospects, the GOP in Maine is run by a racist demagogue, Gov. Paul LePage, who is widely disliked.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said the struggling economy and the antics of LePage ― the two are not necessarily disconnected ― have fueled the pushback against the GOP.
“Maine is one of only seven states in the country that have not recovered all the jobs we lost in the recession, and we’ve lost 40 percent of our mill jobs in the last five years,” Bartlett told HuffPost. “While we take nothing for granted, we are feeling good about our ground game. Voters are channeling their frustration into volunteering for us in our 29 field offices across the state, and we are cautiously optimistic that we will flip the Senate in November. Even Governor LePage has predicted his party will likely lose the chamber.”
Republicans have a bare one-seat, 11-10 majority in the Senate, and Democrats think GOP primary voters gave them a gift in selecting as their candidate for a Las Vegas-area contest Victoria Seaman, a member of the state Assembly who rallied for right-wing rancher Cliven Bundy and backed legislation to help him. Democrats believe they have a stronger choice for the diverse district in Nicole Cannizzaro, a Clark County prosecutor. Democrats also are investing heavily in a Reno contest where they lost in 2012 by just 300 votes.
Democrats were especially hard-hit in the state Assembly in 2014, and they hold a 17-21 disadvantage there. But turnout was especially low, and that leaves some nine GOP-held seats where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans. Longtime Nevada political observer and columnist Jon Ralston rates control of the chamber as “strong lean Democratic.”
New Hampshire House
Trump looks to be a huge factor in New Hampshire, where Granite State Republicans are not super-enthusiastic about him. In the most recent Monmouth University poll of the state, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was leading by 9 points. That’s a potential formula for a down-ticket wipeout, especially in a House that has 400 members, all poorly known. While Republicans hold 235 of those seats, “It certainly has flipped a good bit over the last several cycles. It’s definitely in play,” said the University of New Hampshire’s Dante Scala. One thing that could save Republicans is if Sen. Kelly Ayotte and governor candidate Chris Sununu can significantly outperform Trump, and stop a wave, he said. Still, Republicans are only fielding a total of 335 candidates, compared with 361 Dem contenders, making for a field that starts slanted against the GOP.
New Hampshire Senate
The New Hampshire Senate has a more manageable 24 members, with 14 of them Republicans. But six of those Republicans are retiring. Democrats think each one of those districts can swing their way, and have bolstered local campaign accounts to take advantage.
Republicans have a strong majority in the Michigan House, with 63 seats, against one vacancy and 43 seats held by Democrats. But Michigan is a term-limit state, and 25 Republicans have to leave office, while just 13 Democratic seats are opening up, giving the Democrats more room to grow. On top of that, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder gets terrible job-approval numbers, and Clinton is maintaining a lead on Trump in the state. The tally at the top of the ballot will be especially important in Michigan, after courts affirmed the state’s straight-ticket voting system, in which voters have the option to just vote for one party, making ticket-splitting less common, and down-ballot contests more likely to look like the presidential result.
Democrats in Minnesota’s House have a 61-73 disadvantage after the GOP took control in 2014. But 2016 is especially unusual in Minnesota, with the only statewide race being the presidential contest. That magnifies the Trump factor. And Clinton leads Trump in the state, with the most recent poll giving her a 6-point edge. Since the GOP did especially well two years ago, there are a number of Democratic-leaning districts where Democrats think they’ll knock off Republicans. On top of the Trump problem, Democrats think they can capitalize on public discontent with an ugly legislative session in which the split legislature was unable to get several large important projects passed, mostly because of blockades from the GOP House.
New Mexico House
Republicans hold a four-seat advantage in the New Mexico House of Representatives. The majority party won control in the 2014 election, but recent history favors Democratic control of the state House. The state’s Democratic Party sees a favorable map and environment to flip the three seats it needs to win back control.
“The map we are looking at has a lot of opportunities to unseat Republicans, but also pick up seats from retiring members,” said Felicia Salazar, communications director for the New Mexico Democratic Party.
The party has already seen a growth in registration, including in key swing regions. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported a jump of 50,000 new registrants since the end of January.
Big increases occurred in key districts, like the west Albuquerque district where Democrat Ronnie Martinez is looking to unseat the incumbent Republican Rep. David Adkins. There was also a jump in registration that Democrats hope to exploit in the Las Cruces district represented by Republican Rep. Terry McMillan.
Trump may very well be a factor in these races, especially in a state that is basically divided three ways among Latinos, whites and Native Americans. Salazar sees the unpopularity of Trump and his “racist remarks” as “putting a lot of Republicans in a tough spot.” Trump’s rhetoric and policies could become an issue in the nine House districts where Obama won in 2012.
New York Senate
New York is a peculiar state for Democrats, considering that they already control a majority of the state Senate. Their problem is a splinter group called the Independent Democrats, which has given the keys of the Senate to Republicans. Currently, one Independent Democrat caucuses with Republicans, while the others sit in between.
This complicated situation may be somewhat clarified in November, as Democrats see at least 10 seats that could switch to their side. Most of the targeted seats are in Long Island and the northern suburbs of New York City, where Democratic turnout should be higher for the presidential election.
Democratic state Sen. Mike Gianaris, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said he’s “confident” Democrats will pick up enough seats, as the environment significantly favors them. He noted that the party has won more than one seat in every presidential cycle going back to 2000.
The candidates at the top of the tickets will be a factor, on top of the usual increase in turnout in a presidential year.
“Unlike some parts of the country, we’re feeling pretty good with Hillary Clinton at top of the ticket and we feel great with Donald Trump at the top of ticket,” Gianaris said. “Pretty unpopular is being kind. He’s horribly unpopular. Particularly in the districts we need to flip.”
There’s polling to back this up. “We expect it to become a big issue in a lot of these campaigns,” Gianaris said.
Democrats in Washington state are optimistic about their chances to regain control of the state Senate. Republicans control 26 seats in the legislative chamber, and Democrats hold 23. That means Democrats only need to win two seats to win the chamber. They only have one Democratic incumbent facing a tough challenge to defend.
Washington is different than most states in that it operates a nonpartisan top-two, or jungle, primary system. In this system, candidates from all parties run in the primary with the top two advancing to the general election. This can give an early preview of the general election. For Democrats, their candidates did quite well in the primaries in the suburban districts they are targeting in November.
Lisa Wellman, a former teacher and tech executive running for state Senate in a district covering Mercer Island and suburban Bellevue, is one of those candidates. She polled just ahead of Republican incumbent Steve Litzow in their primary matchup.
“It was a major shock to him and a pleasant surprise to us that we did that well,” Wellman said.
The district has trended heavily toward Democrats in recent elections. It is the only Senate district occupied by a Republican that Obama won in 2012.
Like many other states that favor the Democratic Party at the national level, the Trump candidacy could be an anchor around the necks of Washington Republicans. “Washington state has been a state where Trump has been wildly unpopular,” Bond said. There is limited polling in the state, but two polls have shown Trump down by 12 points and 19 points to Clinton. Obama won the state by 17 points in 2008, and 15 points in 2012.
“We think we’re well positioned to win,” said Alex Bond, political director for the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign. “We definitely see a very clear path to victory based on the strong primary results and the strong electorate for Democrats in the general.”
West Virginia Senate
West Virginia isn’t usually thought of as favorable environment for the Democratic Party these days. The state gives Trump some of his best marks, and Clinton some of her worst. In 2012, Obama lost 40 percent of the primary vote to an imprisoned felon.
State-level elections, however, favor Democrats. Billionaire Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice posted a 10-point lead in a recent poll. State legislative candidates see hope that their Democratic Party, while maybe not the national party, will do well in November.
“There’s a reaction throughout the state after two years of the Republican control of the legislature that is not favorable,” said Democratic state Rep. Stephen Skinner, who is running for an open Senate seat currently occupied by a retiring Democrat.
Republicans control the Senate by an 18-16 margin, meaning Democrats need only flip two seats. Major issues include the economic impact of sinking coal and gas prices and controversial issues the Republican legislature passed in the past two years. They include the enactment of right-to-work legislation that could, if it survives a court challenge, gut union organizing rights in the state.
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