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Democrats, Donors Turn Focus to State Legislative Races

Republicans say their foes have tried before but still came up short

Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is backed by President Obama, will focus prominently on state legislative races. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is backed by President Obama, will focus prominently on state legislative races. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate map is chock-full of deep red states, the House map skews Republican, and the presidential race doesn’t start for at least two more years. 

If Democrats and their donors want to find ways to win in 2018, they might need to refocus down the ballot — way down the ballot.

State legislative races are hardly sexy and, until recently, mostly an afterthought to much of the national Democratic Party. But faced with a historically low level of control of state legislatures, and with congressional redistricting in 2020 at stake, the party’s leaders, well-heeled contributors, and strategists are vowing to mount a never-before-seen effort to win these state-level battles.

Headlining the initiative is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a venture led by former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and backed by President Barack Obama that — in addition to gearing up for legal battles and gubernatorial contests — will also focus prominently on state legislative races.

“There’s a great focus now in the Democratic Party, and in the progressive community more broadly, that getting back to power in Washington, D.C., requires gaining ground in the states,” said Greg Speed, an NDRC board member and president of the America Votes Action Fund.

For donors in particular, there may be no better place to invest over the next two years than state-level legislative and gubernatorial races. The Democrats have very little hope of retaking the Senate in a year in which the party must defend 10 seats in states won by Donald Trump.

And given the right-leaning makeup of House districts, Democrats would need a massive wave election to seize control there.

Potential payoff

That leaves state legislative and gubernatorial races as the few battlegrounds where donors could contribute and see an immediate reward after 2018 — an important opportunity for victory for a group of men and women who saw little payoff for their spending last year.

“There’s some donor fatigue. I know I have some, as much as I’ve spent and raised to see it go down the tubes,” said Bruce Thompson, a North Carolina Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser. “Democrats raised a bunch of money but didn’t think about how to get that money and structure down into the micro level. We’ve got to be able to do that to pick up some of these seats.”

Obama’s tenure has been a disaster for state legislative Democrats. After 2016, the party controls only 30 state legislative bodies, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans control 66.

The GOP, in fact, made gains at the state legislative level last year despite forecasts of Democratic gains. The party took control of the state House in Kentucky, for instance, the first time it had done so in nearly a 100 years.

To Democrats, their struggles were symptomatic of an election that, at all levels, proved much harder than anticipated. But they hope that the failures served as a wake-up call.

“Immediately after the election … [people] were turning to us and saying, ‘What can we do?’” said Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group that assists Democratic state legislative candidates nationwide. “It seems to have hit a lot of folks organically really quickly.”

Adding to the interest? Donors’ optimism that they can get a bigger bang for their buck in smaller races. 

“It takes a lot less to win a couple of targeted state House races in Michigan than it does to win a U.S. House race,” Fiddler said.

Fiddler and others think that the coming midterm elections, in which the new president’s party traditionally struggles, could offer a sure path to victories. They also say that legislative overreach by the GOP in several states now under their control could elicit a backlash all its own.

Still, challenges remain. Democrats can talk a good game about caring about state House and Senate races now, but the inevitable focus on Washington — and opposing Trump — could sway many Democrats to think that the real battle is in the nation’s capital.

Dwelling on a state Senate race in Minnesota, in other words, might fall on deaf ears in fundraising hotspots like San Francisco and New York.

“It is a harder sell, and that’s why there has to be a group of people that are getting that message out there,” Thompson said.

Democrats hope the disappointment of the 2016 election sinks in enough to change the attitudes of the donor class.

A new focus

“If ever the importance of states were to come into focus, it would be after an election like 2016,” Speed said. “We are out of power in the White House, the Senate, and structurally out of power in the House because of the states.”

The party will also run into same problems they do in U.S. House races: In some states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, the state legislative districts drawn after 2010 favor the GOP. (Other states, like Illinois, heavily favor Democrats.)

Republicans laugh off the suggestion that Democrats are newly focused on state legislative races, or that if they were, it would even matter.

They say they’ve heard the same rhetoric every election cycle since Obama took office. And yet, the results never change.  

“Every cycle, for the past several cycles, Democrats have talked about how this is the cycle when it’s going to change, this is the year they’re going to make gains at the state level,” said Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that assists GOP state legislative candidates across the country. “Until they recognize that their policy positions are not in line with voters of this country, and until they start running candidates that are respected by the voters of their district, they run the very real risk of continuing to fall from the already … historically low level they’re at.”

Walter added: “It’s going to be an interesting and highly covered cycle in the states, we’re sure. And we welcome that.”

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