The 2020 election undoubtedly offers Democrats their best chance yet to reclaim state legislative chambers across the country.
by Ronald Brownstein
Although hardly any of the governors grappling with the fiercest coronavirus outbreaks are on the ballot this fall, voters’ verdicts about their performance loom heavily over another electoral battle with enormous implications for the balance of power between the parties over the next decade: the struggle for control of state legislatures.
In polls, voters have given higher marks to Democratic governors who have moved cautiously on reopening than to Republicans who reopened early in response to President Donald Trump’s cues. That may offer Democrats their best chance to overcome the GOP’s entrenched advantage in state legislatures—which next year will draw local legislative and congressional-district lines that will govern elections through 2030.
“COVID-19 and the concerns that surround that—everything from the health concerns people have to concerns about the economy and school—it’s the issue in the 2020 campaign, without a doubt,” Bob Trammell, the Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, told me, echoing the sentiment of Democrats elsewhere. Governor Brian Kemp, one of the Republicans who reopened early, “may not be on the ballot,” Trammell added, but “his response to COVID is very much on the ballot.”
Democrats still face significant obstacles in erasing the Republican lead in state legislatures. The GOP has a big cushion: It now controls 59 state legislative chambers, compared with just 39 for Democrats, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some key state House chambers, such as Florida and Georgia, Democrats must win so many seats that a takeover remains plausible only if the election produces a towering Democratic landslide. And in many states, Democrats must overcome both a substantial Republican financial advantage and gerrymandered district maps that were designed precisely to preserve GOP majorities.
But the 2020 election—coming as both Trump and many Republican governors face howling discontent over their handling of the coronavirus crisis—undoubtedly offers Democrats their best chance yet to recover from their catastrophic state-level losses in the 2010 election.
That year, the Tea Party–led backlash against then–President Barack Obama—particularly his passage of the Affordable Care Act—powered Republicans to historic gains in Congress and in state legislative and gubernatorial races across the country. Republicans added more than 700 state legislative seats, boosting the number of chambers they controlled from 36 to 60. Combined with the GOP gains in governor’s races, that advance swelled the number of states in which Republicans controlled all the levers of government from nine to 21.
The 2010 losses could not have come at a worse time for Democrats, because Republicans having unified control in many states meant they had a free hand to control redistricting. (The exception: states that rely on independent commissions or other means to determine districts.) The GOP drew aggressive maps that guaranteed their grip on state legislatures for the ensuing decade, including in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Though Republicans’ state-level advantage has cracked some since Trump took office—because of both a demographic change favoring Democrats and a suburban backlash against his turbulent presidency—it hasn’t crumbled. Democrats have regained about 300 state legislative seats nationwide since Trump’s election, but Republicans retain a 400-seat edge overall. And although the 2018 election of Democratic governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania ended the complete GOP control of those states, Republicans still hold all the levers of power in 21 others, including the Sun Belt behemoths of Texas and Florida. Both states are projected to gain congressional seats after 2020, as is North Carolina, where Republicans hold both legislative chambers and where state law denies the governor, the Democrat Roy Cooper, any role in redistricting. (Democrats hold unified control in just 15 states.)
Now the headwinds buffeting Trump and several Republican governors are offering Democrats the same opportunity the GOP seized in 2010: the chance to post big state-level gains in the election immediately before the decennial reapportionment and redistricting.
With those stakes, Democrats are pursuing a wide range of state-level targets in both the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. Party strategists believe they have the best chance to dislodge current Republican majorities in the Minnesota state Senate; the state Houses in Texas, Michigan, and Iowa; and one or both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The GOP advantage now stands at six seats or fewer in all of those chambers except the Texas and Pennsylvania houses, where the Republican cushion is nine seats each. Democratic groups are contesting Florida and Georgia as well, but with the bigger GOP margins there (14 seats in Florida and 16 in Georgia), they remain a tougher climb.
Common threads connect these contests. Across all of these states, Democrats are almost entirely targeting white-collar suburban seats that have moved away from the GOP in the Trump era. In Texas, for instance, where Democrats gained 12 suburban state House seats in 2018, the party’s remaining targets for 2020 are preponderantly concentrated in the Houston and Dallas suburbs, including eight Republican-held districts that Beto O’Rourke won in his 2018 Senate bid and seven more that he lost by four percentage points or less. Likewise, in Georgia, where Democrats won 14 suburban Atlanta house seats in 2018, the party is again targeting the diverse and growing Cobb and Gwinnett Counties outside the city, where Stacey Abrams ran well in her 2018 gubernatorial race.
That pattern shapes the interaction between the state legislative races and the presidential contest. For the legislative races, the key question isn’t whether Trump or the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, wins a given state; it’s how Trump and Biden perform in the specific seats Democrats are targeting, particularly in major metropolitan regions. Even if Trump holds states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona by maximizing his rural performance, Democrats could still get a huge boost in down-ballot races if Biden routs the president in the growing urban and suburban areas. Biden’s performance in big metros is “the whole ball game,” Vicky Hausman, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a Democratic group that tries to flip state chambers, told me. “Trump can run up the score in the rural areas, and it doesn’t impact our path to the majority through the suburbs.”
The other common thread in these races is that the pandemic has made the functioning of state government seem far more relevant to voters’ lives than it did before. For example, the public-health crisis has provided a vivid backdrop for the calls from Democratic candidates to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in the states that have refused to do so, including Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Even more, the outbreak has put a spotlight on governors’ decision-making, with Democrats generally moving faster to close down their economies in the spring and more cautiously reopen them this summer, and Republican governors, especially across the Sun Belt, almost uniformly doing the opposite.
Those choices have produced a divergence in governors’ public approval. Recent polls in Florida and Arizona found the approval ratings for Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Doug Ducey of Arizona both tumbling to around 40 percent. Recent surveys in Texas have found Republican Governor Greg Abbott relatively stronger, at just under 50 percent, but that figure still represents a big decline from earlier in his tenure, as many voters disapprove of his handling of the outbreak. A poll released Wednesday in Georgia found that although just more than half of voters statewide approve of Kemp’s handling of the outbreak, nearly three-fifths disapprove in likely swing counties, which include the big Atlanta suburbs. Likewise, Ducey faces a stinging 17-point net disapproval in Maricopa County, the epicenter of both Arizona’s outbreak and the battle for control of the state legislature.
Democratic governors in the key states are generally scoring better: Recent public polls found that about three-fifths of voters gave positive job-approval marks to Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Cooper in North Carolina, and Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania, while almost two-thirds approve of Tim Walz in Minnesota.
Trump’s diminished standing in many of the targeted state districts reinforces the disparity in public opinion between Republican and Democratic leaders. The nonpartisan Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project samples enough voters each week to assess attitudes down to the county level over time. In an analysis for The Atlantic, based on combined results from early May to mid-July, it found that Trump’s approval rating stood at only about 40 percent or less in Harris and Dallas Counties in Texas, as well as in Hillsborough (Tampa) and Orange (Orlando) Counties in Florida. His approval was just above 40 percent in Maricopa. The poll showed Biden leading Trump in all of those counties.
Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, summed up the polls’ significance this way: Republican legislative candidates must overcome not only long-standing discontent with Trump in the suburbs, but also new unease about their governors. “It is going to be impossible for Republicans to overcome their [party] affiliation, because it’s localized,” she told me.
Particularly in the Sun Belt states buckling under massive virus outbreaks—since June 30, the number of cases has roughly doubled in Arizona and Georgia, increased by a factor of 2.5 in Texas, and nearly tripled in Florida—Democratic challengers are aggressively tying their Republican opponents to the decisions of GOP governors.
In Texas, for instance, Ann Johnson, a former prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office who is running for a Houston-area state House seat, doesn’t mince words in indicting Abbott for his role in Texas’s raging coronavirus outbreak.
“At a moment of crisis, where he got to choose whether he stood with Trump and the extreme version of his party or our medical community, [Abbott] picked Trump and the extreme version of his party, with thousands of Texans paying the price with their lives for it,” Johnson says.
That language is extraordinary: Since Abbott’s election in 2014, he has been so popular in Texas that few politicians in either party have openly tangled with him.
Democratic state-legislative candidates have been equally aggressive in challenging DeSantis’s performance in Florida. “There was not a single scintilla of science or leadership that was displayed, and as the president continued to be the denier in chief, our governor was standing right there next to him,” says Kayser Enneking, an anesthesiologist and the Democratic nominee for a GOP-held state House seat centered on Gainesville. “And our whole legislative Republican contingent had their heads in the sand equally. The legislature has been in lockstep” with the governor.
Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster in Florida, agrees that approval for DeSantis and Trump alike has fallen amid the state’s surging case numbers. But he says that hasn’t yet translated into “voting intention” for Democrats. Although Floridians are uneasy about the outbreak, he says, other issues—such as Trump’s emphasis on “law and order” and warnings about urban disorder—also are resonating. And whatever the immediate mood, he notes, the GOP state House and Senate majorities are bolstered by a massive fundraising advantage over Democrats. “With the caveat that I think 30 days out we’ll know whether the bottom has fallen out for us or not, as of today, I could see us picking up two seats in the state House,” he says. Democrats flipping the chamber, he predicts, remains “a bridge too far.”
Similarly, Bill Miller, an Austin-based consultant and lobbyist who has worked for candidates in both parties, says that although the pandemic has hurt Texas Republicans, he believes Democrats will still fall short of taking the state House, largely because increased focus on the party’s national agenda closer to Election Day “will be problematic … in this state.”
Democratic strategists I’ve spoken with are more optimistic about their prospects, but they agree the GOP’s financial advantages in several targeted state Houses could prove decisive. Hausman said that in the most recent quarter, Democratic challengers in the targeted races raised only 60 percent, on average, as much as their Republican opponents in Texas, and just 30 percent what their opponents raised in Florida.
“There are no giveaways,” she said. “This is not going to happen naturally because of a Biden win. As it stands now, Democrats are not poised to win the big wins where it matters most unless they step up and invest the big resources that are necessary.”
The urgency in her warning reflects the stakes of failure for Democrats in these contests. Particularly across the fast-growing Sun Belt states, if Democrats win control of at least one state legislative chamber, they could negotiate for state legislative and congressional maps that reflect both their growing suburban strength and the states’ increasing racial diversity. But if Republicans retain control of the mapmaking, they could draw district lines that fortify their eroding majorities in those states.
That doesn’t mean Republicans will control those states in the 2020s as lopsidedly as they did in the 2010s—underlying demographic changes are probably too great for that—but it does mean that Democrats will be pushed back toward the bottom of the hill and face another decade-long climb in both state and congressional contests. “If you control the mapmaking process, it enables you to hold the line,” says Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Which is why both parties recognize that so much is on the line in the state legislative contests unfolding in the shadow of the pandemic this November.
Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.