Haunted by ghosts of elections past, Democrats push to flip state legislatures in 2020

Phil McCausland
·11 min read

DeAndrea Salvador said she feels immense political pressure from her state Senate race as she tries to reach new voters in her hometown of Charlotte, even though more than half of North Carolina has already cast its ballots.

Salvador, the founder of an energy nonprofit and a fifth-generation resident of her Southern city, is running in a district that is one of five in the state vital to Democrats’ hopes of flipping the North Carolina Legislature blue. If they win, Democrats would take control for the first time since Republicans dominated local races in 2010’s conservative wave.

While the presidential race swallows up all the oxygen, down-ballot races could define North Carolina politics — and those in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and even Texas — for the next decade. That’s because the winner will have the power to redraw state electoral maps now that the 2020 census is done. Who draws those maps and how they’re drawn in 2021 could have a lasting impact on North Carolina and its 13 congressional districts, for instance.

North Carolina Republicans had that power in 2010, dividing electoral districts to heavily favor GOP majorities and cementing the party’s dominance in the state over the past decade.

Now, with a potential blue wave forming, Democrats hope to do the same in North Carolina and in state capitals across the country. They just have to win at the local level on Tuesday first.

“This is an especially important election in terms of redistricting,” Salvador said. “We have a once-in-a-decade opportunity for us to really put in place things that our community views as fair, independent and nonpartisan.”

Deandrea Salvador. (Deandrea Salvador campaign)
Deandrea Salvador. (Deandrea Salvador campaign)

Democrats are aiming to flip both chambers of North Carolina’s Legislature so they can reverse many of the Republicans' legislative accomplishments. They maintain that changes were only possible because of the manipulation of electoral boundaries for political advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering, which allowed Republicans to develop a supermajority in the state Legislature.

Progressives cite multiple Republican policy achievements as legislative black eyes that have left the state reeling. There’s the Charlotte bathroom bill that caused businesses to pull out of the state, and the yearslong fight over Medicaid expansion and providing health care to more than 194,000 members of the state’s working poor. State Republicans also cut state unemployment benefits to one of the lowest levels in the country, a policy particularly relevant during the pandemic’s economic crisis.

But Democrats are not only setting their sights on North Carolina, but also have targeted a total of about 50 seats in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas that they believe will allow them to flip one or both of those states’ legislative chambers blue. They also are working to gain seats in Georgia, Florida and Kansas to begin to make inroads in state legislatures that have become Republican strongholds.

The races might seem small — the average cost of a local campaign is about $100,000 — but the implications could be big. Republicans in the past have better understood these down-ballot races and made the necessary investments, while Democrats struggled to get donors and grassroots organizations excited.

“If you want to rebuild the Democratic Party and if you want to rebuild democracy in the United States, you have to win back state legislatures,” Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said. “Through them, you can fix our challenge with voting rights, you can fix these gerrymandered districts, you can implement the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid, and now with this conservative Supreme Court, you need to back up fundamental rights within state law.”

A haunting series of elections

Post, who was a field director for the perennially underfunded committee in 2010, said she remembers crying in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on election night in 2010 when the Republican results came in. It showed they’d taken complete control of 25 state legislatures to Democrats’ 16. Republicans had won nearly 700 legislative seats over the course of one night.

As Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez likes to say, Democrats picked an especially bad night to have a bad night.

Because Republicans gained control in those states and made inroads in others, the situation got worse for Democrats before it got better. The Democratic Party lost more than 950 legislative seats during Barack Obama’s presidency as Republicans cemented their power in the redistricting process for the next decade. The disparity was at its most stark before the 2018 election with 32 state legislatures in Republican control, 13 with Democrats and four remaining divided, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Nebraska, the 50th legislature, is nonpartisan.)

Democrats first saw some daylight in Virginia after the election. Efforts to move the needle there in 2016 culminated in the party flipping both of Virginia’s legislative chambers in 2019, making it a model for electoral change.

Democratic organizers used what happened in Virginia as a playbook on flipping legislatures despite intense gerrymandering. In 2016, the state had a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators and voted for Hillary Clinton by five points. Yet, Republicans controlled seven of the 11 congressional seats and had a near supermajority in the Statehouse because of the way the maps were drawn, organizers said.

Frustration grew that Democrats had won the statewide popular vote in Virginia regularly since 2014, but they continued to see a disparity in representation. Now they’re attempting to win on both fronts.

To do that, Democrats have raised more than $50 million for this election cycle and hired over 50 staffers to support the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — rather than the $10 million and 14 staffers they had in 2010. (Republicans have raised about $60 million, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee.) Democratic candidates are also enjoying tens of millions of dollars more in support from third-party groups.

Some of those supporting groups are well known, such as the political action committee EMILY’s List or the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, started by former President Barack Obama and led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. But many independent groups came to life after the 2016 election, led by voters incensed over Donald Trump’s win and the perceived neglect of down-ballot races.

How to avoid ‘uphill battles in Congress every two years’

Rita Bosworth worked as a federal public defender in California until she decided to cofound Sister District Project to invest in state legislative campaigns shortly after the 2016 election. The group has gone from raising a little more than $350,000, organizing 30,000 volunteers and supporting 15 candidates in 2017 to raising more than $1.85 million, coordinating 50,000 volunteers and supporting 40 candidates in 2020.

“In 2016, there were a ton of people that came together and said, ‘We’ve got to flip Congress, we’ve got to flip Congress,’” Bosworth said. “I’m glad we flipped Congress, but the truth is that we have to do it again in 2020 and 2022. The reality is that we needed to go into states, win power in state legislatures, get fair maps drawn, so that we won’t have to fight those uphill battles in Congress every two years.”

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s national strategy this year focuses on building infrastructure for more than 600 races, while also specifically targeting investments at about 50 seats to flip the chambers it sees as close. But much of the organization’s ground game is driven by local groups and outside investment.

Some local groups, such as FLIP NC and the Texas Organizing Project, see an opportunity for long-lasting progressive change and are targeting specific candidates or issues that they think will cause their states to turn blue.

Reginald Bolding Jr. (Angie Wang / AP file)
Reginald Bolding Jr. (Angie Wang / AP file)

Arizona Rep. Reginald Bolding, a Democrat, founded the Arizona Coalition for Change for that reason. His party hopes to flip both chambers of the Legislature, held by Republicans for more than 30 years. He said the push began in Arizona, but they’re now being helped across the finish line by national investment.

“They’re making a deep-rooted investment here, so you have a sort of top-down model and a grassroots model,” Bolding said. “It’s just really catching us at the right time.”

An ‘onslaught of spending’ from Democrats

Republicans organizing the down-ballot races on the other side of the aisle point to some of these national groups as putting their thumb on the scale in a local election cycle, which they said is unfair and stealing from the very playbook they wrote.

Dave Abrams, the deputy executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said these groups are pulling in money from billionaires and the entire effort is hypocritical. Democrats, he said, are not attempting to create an egalitarian government with fairly drawn maps, but one that will institutionalize their progressive priorities.

Republicans did certainly gerrymander the states they controlled, but Abrams said Democrats have done the same in states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts. Now they’ve just started paying attention to the national picture.

“We’ve said for years that Democrats would pour tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, into these races, so we’ve had to raise more than ever before to keep these legislatures in Republican hands,” Abrams said.

“From what we can just trace through public disclosures and public announcement, the constellation on the left that's funded by liberal megadonors — like George Soros, or Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer — they're at least at $103 million in the cycle right now,” he added. “And so when you added it all together, we know what we're facing: We're facing an onslaught of spending. And so we're up against quite a battle.”

That onslaught has allowed Post to turn the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee from a political backwater into an electoral powerhouse. Local organizers noted that flyers they received as recently as 2016 from the party focused on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but now down-ballot candidates are offered access to graphic design assistance and help in developing tailored fundraising lists.

Multiple Democratic insiders described a Democratic National Committee in 2010 that was disconnected from the other political organizations within the party. Instead, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Committee operated almost as private fiefdoms at the time.

Since Trump won the election, there has been much more program coordination, according to organizers, and attention paid to issues such as voter suppression, which affects everyone up and down the ticket.

“One of the things that the big loss in 2016 did to all of us is, it dusted off any sense of arrogance about levels of the ballot, running a superior program,” Post said. “There was much more of an openness — as we started winning special elections and flipping seats really before anyone else did — to just working together.”

'Our work is never done'

But donor investment and education still remain a top issue for these legislative battles.

Some Democrats recalled the 2017 special election in Georgia that featured the failed candidacy of Jon Ossoff, who is now running for Senate in the same state. Democratic donors poured in more than $23 million to support a candidate whose election would not change the balance of power in Congress. The win would have been at best symbolic — and those millions would have gone a long way in the fight for state legislatures.

“There’s definitely an issue of shiny object elections with Democrats,” said Catherine Vaughan, who started an organization dedicated to legislative races called Flippable, which merged with a progressive group, Swing Left.

“People see someone in the news a lot or someone has a viral video and people want to donate to them,” she explained. “But is that person really in need of another $10 or would that go further for a local legislative candidate or a voter registration operation? We're trying to work a lot on helping educate our donors, who have become really sophisticated over the past few years, to help serve their needs and make their donations more effective.”

Democrats won’t really know whether their investment will earn them a renewed sense of swagger on Election Day, as numerous activists and organizers hedged when asked whether they will be able to flip all their targets.

But Post said she is cautiously optimistic that she will upgrade from the consolation beer she drank after the 2010 results came in. This year, she’s hoping for champagne.

“Maybe I’ll crack an inexpensive bottle and celebrate for a moment, but then after that we’ve got to think about defending our incumbents, making sure redistricting looks fair in the states and defending our majority in Virginia in 2021,” she said. “Our work is never done.”