Democrats expect to make major gains in state legislatures across the country, reversing years of losses that have cost them federal power and given conservatives free rein in one-time Democratic strongholds.
The party expects to flip over 300 legislative seats, enabling it to take control of between six and eight legislative chambers, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to state legislatures.
“We are not afraid of this fight. We took it on in 2017 and we’ll take it on again in 2018,” DLCC executive director Jessica Post said on a call with reporters on Thursday.
Democrats have the opportunity to take over the state Senate in New York, Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Hampshire, and state Houses in Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan, among other places.
The party has already flipped 44 legislative seats in off-year and special elections since 2016, including a November 2017 win in Washington state that put the state Senate in Democratic hands. Democrats now have unified control of state government in the Evergreen State.
The additional pickups on Tuesday would lay the groundwork for a strong showing in the 2020 elections, which will determine control of the redistricting process in the vast majority of states.
Democrats’ stunning blowouts at the state level in the midterm elections of 2010, the last census year, locked them out of redistricting in a host of states. The losses allowed Republicans to gerrymander Congressional seats and maintain an iron hold on the U.S. House for eight years.
In addition, dominance of governorships and state legislatures empowered Republicans to radically reshape policy in ways that provided them long-term political advantages ― not least in historically Democratic parts of the Midwest.
Specifically, Republican governors and state governments have engaged in aggressive voter suppression tactics and prioritized gutting labor unions, which are typically an influential source of campaign cash and voter mobilization for Democrats.
“These weren’t your granddaddy’s Republicans,” said Tim Waters, political director of the United Steelworkers union. “The first thing they did is try to get their boot on our throat, because they see unions as the thing standing between them and their unfettered agenda.”
Since 2010 alone, Republican state governments have passed right-to-work laws, which bar unions from requiring dues payment from workers they represent, in five states: Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia. (Missouri voters overturned a 2017 right-to-work law in an August referendum.)
In Iowa, which has been a right-to-work state since 1947, a Republican takeover of the state Senate in 2016 enabled them to cripple remaining bastions of union power. With unified GOP control, the state government severely limited public sector collective bargaining and barred state and local contracting rules that favored construction unions.
In an October interview in his Des Moines office, Iowa Federation of Labor president Ken Sagar said the stakes of the election were “critical” for Iowa’s embattled unions.
“We need to elect people who are supporting working families in order to fundamentally ensure the survival of the labor movement in this state,” Sagar said.
Election Day is on track to be a good day for Sagar: In addition to the prospect of retaking the state House, Democrat Fred Hubbell has a slight lead in public polling of the governor’s race.
A reckoning with the devastation of state-level Democratic power and the rank-and-file disinterest that drives it has been a decade in the making. From 2009 to 2014, Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats, only beginning to rebound in 2015.
When it comes to governorships, the party hit a low point in mid-2017 when it controlled just 15 of the country’s governors’ mansions. Republicans currently have 26 “trifectas,” or states where they control both legislative chambers and the governorship; Democrats merely have eight.
The Democratic turnaround in state-level elections this year is the product of a collective realization among donors, activists and elected officials that states can no longer be ignored. Many grassroots Democratic donors eager to pitch in were lured in by the knowledge that, unlike hyper-expensive congressional contests, smaller donations have an outsize impact in state legislative races.
As a result, the DLCC, long the most overlooked of national party committees, had a banner fundraising cycle, spending a record $35 million on legislative races.
The Democratic Governors Association also raised a record $121 million this cycle, putting the party in strong position to flip upwards of six governorships.
To buttress official party resources, a staggering number of outside funders and activist groups have cropped up since the 2016 election to assist in the less glamorous work of flipping GOP-held state legislative seats.
The super PAC Forward Majority has spent $9 million to elect Democrats in over 120 seats in six states, the bulk of it on digital advertising and direct mail.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder, raised nearly $11 million in 2017 with the goal of influencing the post-2020 redistricting processes. NDRC employs a multi-pronged approach that includes litigation and the development ballot initiatives, of which elections are just one part, but it is spending $750,000 on a field organizing effort with For Our Future, a joint venture of organized labor and liberal billionaire Tom Steyer.
The digital startups Sister District and Flippable enable nationwide Democratic activists to volunteer time and money to winning state legislative seats across the country.
A whole lot of people have found religion on state legislatures, but unfortunately they stop at gerrymandering. That’s just the beginning. Daniel Squadron, Future Now Fund
And Tech for Campaigns has marshaled the resources of Democratic tech professionals to build technology and perform volunteer digital work for state legislative campaigns. This year, the group has dispatched volunteers to 117 campaigns in 17 states, including 25 campaigns in Arizona alone, where the group effectively runs digital organizing for state House and Senate Democrats.
The Future Now Fund, a new PAC that is spending $4 million on key legislative races in Arizona, Michigan, Maine, North Carolina and New Hampshire, has formed a direct partnership with Tech for Campaigns in Arizona. The anger over school funding and pay that prompted a massive teachers strike in April has given Democrats a shot at flipping the state Senate there.
“One of the major challenges at the state legislative level is getting high-quality work since the profit just isn’t as high for consultants. Tech for Campaigns fills that gap,” said Daniel Squadron, executive director of Future Now.
Squadron is an evangelist for caring about state legislature races beyond the impact they have on gerrymandering.
“A whole lot of people have found religion on state legislatures but unfortunately they stop at gerrymandering. That’s just the beginning,” he said, noting the disproportionate impact states have on labor rights, environmental rules, women’s rights and antitrust regulation.
To that end, Future Now also has a nonprofit arm that embeds itself in state legislatures after elections are over to provide policy and political expertise for Democratic lawmakers.
The vast majority of state legislatures are part time and have small staff budgets, putting Democrats at a disadvantage against well-funded conservative and corporate front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Future Now has successful solicited 388 candidates and legislators to pledge support for their seven goals: “good jobs,” “affordable quality health care,” lifelong education, campaign finance reform and political transparency, civil rights, infrastructure investment and a clean environment.
In many state legislative races, however, the most influential players are the same Facebook-based, anti-Trump Resistance groups powering congressional campaigns.
That’s certainly true in the North Hills suburbs just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Emily Skopov, a former screenwriter for “Xena: Warrior Princess,” has mounted a surprisingly competitive challenge against Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai.
It’s hard to find a stronger embodiment of the post-2010 Republican hegemony in state legislatures than Turzai. Turzai famously boasted in June 2012 that passage of the state’s voter ID law would “allow” Republican Mitt Romney to defeat then-President Barack Obama in Pennsylvania.
Until Skopov released an internal poll in October showing her within striking distance, though, she had trouble getting the official Democratic Party organs and labor unions in greater Pittsburgh to take her bid seriously.
Women for the Future (WTF) Pittsburgh, a progressive PAC and field organizing outfit founded by, among other women, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, was one of her earliest and most consistent champions. Two weeks ago, Skopov also got a boost from the Forward Majority super PAC, which purchased a 6-figure digital ad buy blasting Turzai for his coziness with lobbyists and corporations.
“The reason why these races are becoming what they are is not because of the Democratic Party,” Skopov told HuffPost in an interview at her campaign headquarters in Wexford. “It’s because of the people on the ground who live here who recognized that there should be no such thing as a small race.”