JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Drowned out by the coronavirus and national politics, Republican and Democratic operatives are quietly preparing for a battle of state legislative supremacy later this year that could have a profound effect on political power for the next decade.
The November ballot will feature more than 5,000 elections for state House and Senate members in 35 states who will play a significant role in crafting or passing new voting districts for Congress and state legislative chambers based on census results.
Republicans, who currently control a majority of state legislative chambers, generally will be on defense against a well-funded Democratic effort. But Republicans are trying to change that narrative.
The national Republican State Leadership Committee on Tuesday rolled out a target list focused on a dozen states where it hopes to strengthen Republican redistricting power or dent that of Democrats. The targets include 115 state legislative seats held by Democrats in districts won by Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.
"The best way for us to play defense is to go on offense and flip these seats,” said Austin Chambers, president of the GOP legislative organization.
Trump could be a big factor in the down-ballot races. National surveys of voters from 2006-2018 have shown that presidential approval carries nearly three times as much impact in determining voters' choices for state legislative candidates as their approval of the legislature itself, said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University who studies elections with a focus on state legislatures.
That's likely to remain the case this year, Rogers said, though there's a chance that voters could be more attuned to state elections because of the attention given to governors who have been leading their states' coronavirus response.
National Democratic groups have compiled similar target lists focused on Republican-held seats, with a goal of flipping control of several closely divided chambers to their favor. Democrats are focusing not only on districts that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election, but also on some Trump-won districts where they think likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden may fare better.
“After the coronavirus and with Biden at the top of the ticket, our map now expands back out to districts that had Democratic DNA, that have voters that thought Trump might turn around the economy in working-class Rust Belt towns across the Midwest," said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
In 2010, the first midterm election of Democrat Barack Obama's presidency, Republicans scored big victories in state legislatures across the country as the Republican State Leadership Committee outspent its Democratic rival by a 3-to-1 ratio. The next year, Republicans used their enhanced power in some states to draw voting districts that have benefited their legislative and congressional candidates for much of the past decade.
“Democrats have been paying the price since 2010 for their lack of success that year," Rogers said.
Democrats have since ratcheted up their state legislative efforts. Obama and his former attorney general, Eric Holder, have spearheaded a new Democratic group focused solely on state redistricting. Various Democratic-aligned interest groups also have begun pouring money into state legislative contests.
Democrats and Republicans have set their sights on some of the same places.
Republican-led legislatures in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin appear on both of their redistricting target lists. So does Minnesota, the only state where Republicans control one legislative chamber and Democrats the other.
Some North Carolina state legislative candidates are running in newly redrawn districts this year after a state court tossed out the old ones drawn by the GOP-led Legislature as illegal partisan gerrymanders. But Democrats could face an uphill climb in states such as Texas and Wisconsin, where they will be running in the same districts that have favored Republicans.
Nationwide, 2020 may be "a more pro-Democratic year, but the payoff in redistricting may be a little bit less, just due to what they can probably actually pick up,” Rogers said.
Texas looms especially large because Democrats have made gains in recent legislative elections. Continued Republican control of both chambers and the governor's office would give the GOP great sway in shaping a large number of congressional districts.
Texas ranks second to California with 36 U.S. House seats and is likely to gain more following the census because of its population growth. Democrats hold full control in California, but an independent citizens commission is responsible for redistricting.
Some of the most hotly contested legislative elections are likely to occur in the Dallas and Houston suburbs.
“It would be a huge blow for the Republican Party if we lost Texas,” Chambers said. "We’re going to make sure that never happens.”
North Carolina is another big target. It's expected to be a battleground for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the governorship. The state legislative elections also matter more than in most states, because the North Carolina governor has no veto power over the voting districts that lawmakers will draw. Republicans currently hold modest majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Kansas may appear to be one of the most surprising states on the target lists because of its solidly Republican legislative majorities. But Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will have veto power over any redistricting plans passed by the Legislature. The battle focuses on whether Republicans will have the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
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