Coral Evans doesn’t have the name identification of her party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, or its candidate in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, Mark Kelly. She doesn’t have their money, either. And her chances of victory in November ― Evans is running in an Arizona state House district where voters supported President Donald Trump four years ago ― may be slimmer than theirs, too.
But when it comes to beating back Trumpism, the outcome of her race and hundreds like it may be just as important as Biden’s or Kelly’s.
“When it comes down to meaningful change and what directly impacts us, that happens at the state level,” said Evans, who currently serves as mayor of Flagstaff. “That’s your state representatives.”
Ending Trump’s presidency and winning a majority in the U.S. Senate are the Democratic Party’s top priorities this November. But at the end of a decade that saw Democrats lose hundreds of state legislative seats nationwide, the party and a new crop of outside organizations have set their sights on races like Evans’ in Arizona, where Democrats have a shot to flip both the state House and Senate. Arizona Republicans now hold a two-seat edge in the state House and a three-seat advantage in the state Senate.
There are similar opportunities across the country: Democrats need small gains to win state House majorities in Texas, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They need two seats to win the Minnesota state Senate and take total control of the state government. In North Carolina, as in Arizona, they could flip both legislative chambers. A wave election could potentially hand them the majority in the Florida state Senate, while Democrats hope to prevent a GOP supermajority in Wisconsin and break one in Kansas.
State legislative races may not be as sexy as the contests at the top of the ticket, but they’re just as important. In most states, they’ll help determine how congressional redistricting unfolds next year, and while progressive bills may stall in a deadlocked U.S. Senate, statehouse Democrats could advance policies to expand voting rights and health care access to millions of Americans.
Unlike years past, the Democratic Party is putting serious money and effort into flipping statehouses.
“The Republicans have never faced a challenge like the one that we’re mounting,” said Christina Polizzi, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party body that helps elect Democrats to state legislatures. The DLCC, which often gets less attention than its counterparts at the federal level, has raised a record-breaking $45 million for its candidates this year. The party committee expects to raise $50 million by Election Day ― $14 million more than it raised two years ago.
The party acknowledges that states like Arizona and Iowa, where state legislative districts are drawn by nonpartisan systems, could prove more easily winnable for Democrats than states like Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where Republicans gerrymandered legislative districts to favor the GOP.
“We’re on offense, but we know that we face a significant challenge because of the map that we’re running on,” Polizzi added.
Democrats’ relative inattention to state legislatures cleared the way for major Republican gains there in 2010 and a historic round of gerrymandering that solidified GOP power in the U.S. House and in the state legislatures themselves.
Trump’s election in 2016 sparked an upswell of Democratic activism and campaign contributions that ultimately extended to the long-neglected state races. Almost four years later, the progressive infrastructure that arose to challenge conservative dominance in state legislatures has matured considerably.
“Donald Trump didn’t come up with the ideas that he’s using to poison our political debate. He appropriated them from hundreds or thousands of state lawmakers who’ve been testing those radical and disruptive ideas for decades.”
This election cycle, Arena, a candidate and campaign staff training organization, has joined with Future Now Fund, a political action committee that supports progressive state legislative candidates, to spend more than $6 million on electing Democrats in five states: Texas, Arizona, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina. The goal is not only to keep donor money flowing to candidates in 75 key races, but also to develop the institutional knowledge needed to share best practices with candidates, according to Ravi Gupta, co-founder of Arena. The group, which counsels state legislative candidates and staff on public speaking, fundraising and strategy, offers the kind of advice and resources previously accessible only to candidates capable of paying for-profit consultants. (The National Democratic Training Committee, an organization founded in 2016, has also trained 1,300 state and local candidates who are on the ballot this November.)
“Because campaigns come and go each election season ... there is very little institutional knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, especially on the left,” Gupta said. “We’ve stepped in and we’re trying to solve that.”
To raise the money needed to power these Democrats’ campaigns, Gupta and others have had to explain to Democratic donors and activists just how much state government policies affect American life.
In the majority of states where the redistricting process remains partisan, the party that controls a state’s government in the year after the decennial census has the power to gerrymander congressional and state legislative districts in its favor and thereby stack the deck against its opponents for a decade.
But the fight for state legislatures goes far beyond gerrymandering and control of Congress. State legislatures are ground zero for most of the policy fights that animate American politics, from taxes and public school budgets to voting laws and health care access. Winning control of the North Carolina legislature, for instance, would likely result in Medicaid expansion in that state. Democratic victories in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arizona could help thwart GOP efforts to limit voting rights there.
Taking over state legislatures is also crucial if Democrats want to blunt the right-wing movement that propelled a candidate like Trump to the presidency, and set the country on a new progressive trajectory, said Daniel Squadron, executive director of Future Now Fund and a former New York state senator.
“Donald Trump didn’t come up with the ideas that he’s using to poison our political debate,” Squadron said. “He appropriated them from hundreds or thousands of state lawmakers who’ve been testing those radical and disruptive ideas for decades.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Arizona. In 2010, the state’s Republican legislature passed SB 1070, an anti-immigration law that drew national outcry and even economic boycotts for empowering the police to ask about residents’ immigration status during ordinary encounters like traffic stops.
Bills like SB 1070 and the fights that followed it ― Arizona Republicans were at the forefront of efforts to pass anti-transgender “bathroom bills” in 2013 ― quickly spread across the country in part because the GOP and its conservative allies put so much emphasis on state legislatures, while Democrats focused their energy on federal politics. During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, Republicans flipped 27 state legislative houses. After Trump’s victory in 2016, they held 67 of the country’s 98 state legislative houses that have partisan races. That allowed the GOP to launder increasingly radical ideas into the mainstream. By 2012, SB 1070’s immigration policies dominated the GOP’s presidential primary. Four years later, Trump brought even harsher immigration ideas to the White House.
For Democrats in Arizona, the SB 1070 fight was an embarrassment ― and an indication of another problem that the nascent progressive organizations are trying to fix. Because most state lawmaking positions are part-time gigs, they are filled largely by people who can afford to run for them, limiting the pool of candidates.
“[People] look at Arizona and they’re like, ‘The people down at the state capitol represent all Arizona.’ That is not true,” Evans said. “What you have is, you have certain people who have the ability to run for office and get into office, and then they’re running around doing this stuff that quite frankly is not reflective of us.”
The Democratic Party renewed its focus on state legislatures ahead of the 2018 election and picked up seven legislative chambers ― although that was still lower than the number of houses that typically change hands in a midterm election, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The party added two more when Democrats gained control of the Virginia state House and Senate in 2019, and special election victories in suburban state legislative districts early this year have buoyed hopes that Democrats’ recent string of successes will continue in November.
Demographic and political shifts have helped in the suburbs and beyond. Evans’ Arizona district is more rural than suburban, but Trump’s 10-point margin there in 2016 shrunk to just a 2-point edge there for the GOP candidate in Arizona’s 2018 U.S. Senate race. And Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won that contest statewide.
Democrats are still well behind the GOP when it comes to funding and prioritizing state legislative races, said Ryan Quinn, the political director at Swing Left, a grassroots group that launched during the 2018 election cycle with a focus on helping Democrats win back control of Congress.
But “they are making up ground very rapidly,” he added, and groups like Swing Left, Future Now Fund and Arena have helped. Future Now has come up with group fundraising models to boost donations for state legislative candidates. Swing Left ― which last year merged with Flippable, an organizing group focused on state governments ― has raised $10.5 million this year for legislative candidates in the states it is targeting.
Future Now, Arena and Swing Left’s fundraising models are built to channel money from Democratic donors to races where it can have the most impact, in an effort to capitalize on increased Democratic enthusiasm during the Trump years. While Biden and U.S. Senate candidates across the country have had little trouble raising tens of millions of dollars, state legislative races can be won for far less. Funneling small-dollar donations into those contests, the organizations argue, is a way to lessen the influence of special interest groups that often spend big in state-level campaigns to bolster their influence.
In addition, while state legislative candidates have traditionally been viewed as potential beneficiaries of strong performances from their party’s presidential candidate and other contenders toward the top of the ticket, the momentum might also flow in the opposite direction. Some Texas Democrats swear that an uptick in competitive state legislative races helped propel Beto O’Rourke’s near-win in the Lone Star State’s Senate race in 2018.
Likewise, the excitement generated by state legislative candidates in battleground states this cycle could give Biden and Democratic Senate candidates a boost.
“Some of the best organizers and the best organizing out there comes from good state legislative races,” said Gupta, noting, by contrast, that the Biden campaign has opted for a more limited field presence and declined to engage in door-to-door canvassing out of coronavirus concerns.
“People are more engaged now because they see what happens when they don’t pay attention.”
The organizing infrastructure may be especially strong in states like Arizona where progressive social movements have arisen in recent years to effect change in state government. In 2018, Arizona was among a handful of states where teachers staged massive protests over cuts to public education budgets. The anger driving those demonstrations generated new crops of candidates and voters looking for ways to have an impact on the political system, and may have heightened voters’ awareness of the importance of local races.
Arizona candidates can sense that on the ground. Felicia French, who is running for state Senate two years after she narrowly lost a race for the House seat that Evans is now chasing, said there is far more energy feeding into her campaign this time around.
“People are more engaged now because they see what happens when they don’t pay attention,” said French, a veteran military nurse and teacher.
French attributed some of that increased energy to the presidential race and a little to Kelly’s heated battle with Sen. Martha McSally (R). But just as much, she said, comes from voters’ focus on local matters. Besides expanding access to health care, she and Evans are running on issues like higher education budgets, rural broadband access, telemedicine and local governance control that resonate in their districts but don’t feature prominently in national politics.
Winning those races is the first step. But Future Now also operates an advocacy organization that develops policy ideas and platforms for candidates, with the goal of helping them write and advance progressive legislation from the first day they take office. It’s another way the group is trying to break the power of influential lobbyists and corporate interests at the state level. And it’s a progressive counter to the efforts of conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which has for years produced model legislation to push its causes nationwide.
“State lawmakers around the country see thousands of bills a year,” Squadron said. “When you can shift the balance of power in the state, you can shift the outcome on thousands of issues.”
This story has been updated to include Swing Left’s most recent fundraising total.
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