Can Democrats Ever Win Back State Legislatures?

One group is putting $70 million on it happening in the next five years.

A picture made October 14, 2011 shows the Capitol Building in Pennsylvania's capital Harrisburg.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
Feb. 24, 2015, midnight

Caring about the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race is so over; now all the cool kids are watch­ing 2020.

Since 2008, Demo­crats have lost con­trol of 30 state le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers — total­ing 910 seats — and 11 gov­ernor­ships. Those were some of the cheery find­ings of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s post­mortem re­port on 2014 (aka Shel­lack­g­ate).

Now, one group — the Demo­crat­ic Le­gis­lat­ive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee — is strik­ing out with an am­bi­tious goal to win many of those state le­gis­lature seats back over the next five years. Back in Au­gust, the DLCC launched Ad­vant­age 2020, a su­per PAC de­voted to re­build­ing Demo­crat­ic power at the state level with the goal of even­tu­ally hold­ing the cray­ons in 2021, when states will re­draw con­gres­sion­al dis­trict lines.

It’s a quix­ot­ic mis­sion, giv­en that many Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­latures re­drew the maps in 2011 spe­cific­ally to en­sure their party’s con­tin­ued elect­or­al vic­tory. Still, with the right com­bin­a­tion of tim­ing, re­cruit­ing, out­reach, fund­ing, and dumb luck, Demo­crats might ac­tu­ally be able to re­coup some of their losses.

The power of the states to de­term­ine power in Wash­ing­ton is not in­sig­ni­fic­ant: 36 state le­gis­latures draw con­gres­sion­al dis­trict lines com­pris­ing 336 total con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts. That’s more than three-quar­ters of the makeup of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

Demo­crats’ loss of state le­gis­latures be­fore 2010 has re­ver­ber­ated past those states’ bor­ders, al­low­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to re­dis­trict as they saw fit in 2011 and rais­ing the star power of purple-state Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors such as Wis­con­sin’s Scott Walk­er, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. Last week, the DLCC an­nounced that Mark Schauer, who lost the gov­ernor’s race to Snyder last year, will lead its new ef­fort to take back power at the state level — and, by ex­ten­sion, na­tion­ally.

The group pro­jects it will spend $70 mil­lion on state-level races over the next five years and plans to fo­cus its ef­forts on six states: Flor­ida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vir­gin­ia, and Wis­con­sin. Those states, which draw the lines for 94 con­gres­sion­al seats, are all Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled at the state level, yet all favored Pres­id­ent Obama over Mitt Rom­ney in 2012.

This is where the DLCC sees room for move­ment.

“These are battle­ground states that are very im­port­ant to the DLCC and have huge na­tion­al im­plic­a­tions,” Schauer told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Make no mis­take: It is about win­ning and build­ing upon the DLCC’s track re­cord of do­ing that.”

Today, Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol 69 of the coun­try’s 99 state le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers (every state has two cham­bers ex­cept for Neb­raska). That’s nearly 70 per­cent of the total. So, how feas­ible is it for Demo­crats to re­gain the seats they lost, in dis­tricts that (they ar­gue) have been tail­or-drawn for Re­pub­lic­ans’ be­ne­fit? There are a lot of factors to con­sider.

One reas­on the DLCC sees room for op­tim­ism is that, between now and the end of 2020, Amer­ic­an voters will have par­ti­cip­ated in two more pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. That’s good news for Demo­crats, who tend to do bet­ter in pres­id­en­tial years than in midterm years (2014, e.g.) as they see high­er turnout among young people and minor­it­ies.

Schauer said demo­graph­ic shifts — like the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of mil­len­ni­als and Latino voters — will also work to Demo­crats’ ad­vant­age.

“We’ve got the ana­lyt­ic­al ex­pert­ise, the polit­ic­al ex­pert­ise with­in the DLCC and its board, and its state part­ners and oth­er al­lies to do this soph­ist­ic­ated, state-spe­cif­ic strategy,” Schauer said. “I think Demo­crats with­in state cap­it­als as well as in Wash­ing­ton see the kind of policies — at­tack­ing wo­men’s health, un­der­min­ing vot­ing rights, at­tack­ing the middle class, im­mig­rants, and minor­ity groups — all of these are out of step with what it takes to move our coun­try for­ward. So we know what the stakes are, and that’s why we’ve taken this bold step to change the land­scape and put an end to right-wing ger­ry­man­der­ing.”

The Re­pub­lic­an State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee — the con­ser­vat­ive equi­val­ent of the DLCC — would beg to dif­fer. RSLC Pres­id­ent Matt Wal­ter ar­gued that Demo­crats had no prob­lem with par­tis­an re­dis­trict­ing, as long as they had con­trol of the maps.

“The last half of the 20th cen­tury saw sig­ni­fic­ant Demo­crat­ic con­trol at the state le­gis­lat­ive level as well as Con­gress, right up un­til the ‘94 re­volu­tion, largely be­cause they were pretty ef­fi­cient at re­dis­trict­ing. Re­pub­lic­ans have caught up, we feel, in the last re­dis­trict­ing cycle,” Wal­ter told Na­tion­al Journal. “The Demo­crats have fi­nally woken up and real­ized that there is a state-level gov­ern­ment and that it’s crit­ic­ally im­port­ant in people’s lives.”

The RSLC has also been ramp­ing up out­reach ef­forts to minor­ity groups and wo­men, which Wal­ter says helped elect 140 Re­pub­lic­an wo­men to of­fice in the last elec­tion cycle. It’s an­oth­er ex­ample that, no mat­ter how much ef­fort Demo­crats put in­to re­gain­ing power at the state level, they are not op­er­at­ing in a va­cu­um.

If the DLCC can help re­cruit strong Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates to run for state of­fice over the next three elec­tion cycles, at least two of those cycles will be more fa­vor­able to them in terms of who will be vot­ing. But that is a big if.

“All of the su­per PAC money in the world prob­ably won’t win dis­tricts if there’s a fail­ure to re­cruit strong can­did­ates,” Charles Frank­lin, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Mar­quette Uni­versity, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Re­pub­lic­ans are not go­ing to sit around and just let the Demo­crats do whatever they want on re­cruit­ment.”

There are cer­tain cir­cum­stances un­der which Demo­crats could see the same big wave of vic­tor­ies in 2020 that Re­pub­lic­ans saw in 2010, even with the dis­trict maps work­ing against them. In 2006 and 2008, Demo­crats in Wis­con­sin made huge gains and even­tu­ally en­joyed full-party con­trol of state gov­ern­ment, only to have that con­trol com­pletely upen­ded in 2010. The dis­trict lines didn’t change; voters did.

“Un­der the cir­cum­stances of a ma­jor pro-Demo­crat­ic wave, I think you shouldn’t dis­count the abil­ity of fired-up voters shift­ing party con­trol even without changes in dis­trict­ing,” Frank­lin said. “There’s a lot of the as­sump­tion that dis­trict­ing is des­tiny. It’s a big chunk of des­tiny, but so are wave elec­tions.”

For the DLCC, there is a sil­ver lin­ing to the swell of vic­tory that Re­pub­lic­ans saw at the state level in 2010: term lim­its. Law­makers in three of Ad­vant­age 2020’s six tar­get states — Flor­ida, Michigan, and Ohio — are term-lim­ited, mean­ing that many of the seats will be wide open in five years.

Polit­ic­al waves can be some­what pre­dict­able, but like Browni­an mo­tion, a lot of the move­ment is left up to chance. It’s im­possible to say today wheth­er Demo­crats will be able to take back state le­gis­latures in 2020. There are simply too many factors to take in­to ac­count.

“There’s no guar­an­tee at all that 2020 will be a good year for Demo­crats,” Frank­lin said. “At this point, for all we know, there’s a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent elec­ted in ‘16 who’s wildly pop­u­lar and sweeps the reelec­tion in 2020. I wouldn’t count those chick­ens be­fore they’re hatched, by any means.”

One thing Schauer and Wal­ter can agree on: Just be­cause they may dis­agree with how the oth­er side draws dis­tricts, that doesn’t mean the power of the map-draw­ing should be put in the hands of non­par­tis­an judges.

“The en­tire design of the sys­tem is set­ting up a sys­tem of checks and bal­ances rather than wait­ing for a be­ne­vol­ent line-draw­er with no polit­ic­al as­pir­a­tions to draw the lines for them, be­cause what we real­ize as Amer­ic­ans is, that doesn’t ex­ist,” Wal­ter said. “It’s em­power­ing, and for 50 years when the Demo­crats had the pen at the state level, it was seen as an em­power­ing thing. Now that they’ve lost touch, lost elec­tions, all of a sud­den the con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­cess that has served them so well for many years is now sud­denly a bad thing. And that’s hy­po­crisy, and people won’t buy it.”

Schauer agreed that re­dis­trict­ing be­longs in the hands of the le­gis­lature but ad­ded that Re­pub­lic­ans shouldn’t be al­lowed to pack left-lean­ing voters in­to as few dis­tricts as pos­sible.

“I think the pro­cess can be done fairly le­gis­lat­ively,” Schauer said. “Le­gis­latures are sup­posed to rep­res­ent the in­terests of the people. But they have to be also based on fair stand­ards.”

So, wheth­er or not Demo­crats will be able to re­set the game board come 2021, they can at least agree with Re­pub­lic­ans on the ba­sic rules.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­stated the full name of the RSLC and the num­ber of state le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol. RSLC stands for the Re­pub­lic­an State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee, and Re­pub­lic­ans across the coun­try con­trol 69 cham­bers.

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