Democrats energized for uphill fight to reclaim state legislatures

Garance Franke-Ruta
·Senior Politics Editor
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

WASHINGTON — On November 14, a 26-year-old first-time candidate snagged a state Senate seat for Democrats in one of the reddest of red states: Oklahoma. Republicans had won the seat by 15 points in 2016, but Allison Ikley-Freeman – a lesbian social worker running in conservative West Tulsa County — flipped an open seat with a 31-vote victory in an under-the-radar and very low-turnout election.

“If you had asked us six months ago if she could have won, we would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But she did the work and she was a good candidate for that district,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which recruits millennial Democrats to contest state races. “What we have seen in 2017 is that people with unconventional backgrounds can and often do win.”

That was true in Virginia that month, where Democrats picked up 15 House of Delegate seats, placing them within a coin toss of ending Republican control of the chamber in an unusually high turnout off-year election in which they also kept control of the governor’s mansion. In Washington state, a Democrat took a state Senate seat in a special election, flipping control of the narrowly divided chamber from Republicans to Democrats.

After years of losses at the state and local level, victories like these in 2017 have Democratic organizers excited about their chances of picking up legislative seats that in recent years they might not have even bothered to contest.

“Everything is on the table,” Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s main organ for organizing to win seats in state chambers, told Yahoo News. “That means districts and states that we thought might be tough to win or that we needed to win in two cycles, we now think we can win in one cycle.”

Coming off a dispiriting 2016, Democratic candidates lost five out of six contested congressional special elections in 2017, although in most cases by much smaller margins than predicted. And out of the spotlight, a year of unprecedented organizing for state legislative fights has begun to pay off in victories that have transformed the outlook of Democratic officials about prospects for down-ballot races.

“We’re very optimistic. I’m ready to order champagne for this whole staff,” said Post of her organizing team as 2017 wound down. “After Virginia, after Washington, after flipping now 34 seats from red to blue this year, we feel fantastic. And we know that we have the wind at our backs going into 2018. We’re excited about what the generic Democrat vs. Republican ballot looks like; we’re even more excited about what’s happening with candidates stepping up to run in numbers they never have before.”

Live interview generic ballot polls in December showed voters preferred a generic — i.e., unnamed — Democrat for Congress by between 11 to 18 points, the highest in two decades. President Trump had the lowest first-year favorable ratings of any post-World War II president. Congressional job approval was even lower than Trump’s, with just under 15 percent approving and more than 73 percent disapproving of the Republican-led chambers, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.

Democrats are reaping a recruitment bonanza from the anti-Trump — and anti-GOP Congress — intensity. More than 25,000 women have contacted Emily’s List about running for office since Trump was elected — 25 times what the group saw in the previous election cycle. Now the group is looking to recruit pro-choice Democratic women to run for 598 state legislative seats across 26 states. There are eight legislatures the group is focusing on flipping from red to blue, and seven Democratic-majority ones it’s determined to help hold. Its “Change the Game” states include such key national battlegrounds as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.

The control of state legislatures will ultimately have an effect on redistricting, with implications for long-term control of Congress. An Associated Press analysis last summer found that Republicans, thanks to partisan gerrymandering, in 2016 won as many as 22 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives beyond what average vote share in congressional districts nationwide would have predicted. And with redistricting efforts coming up following the 2020 census, that advantage could grow in states where Republicans hold both chambers, especially if there’s also a Republican governor. “If we fail to win back the state legislatures … we’ll be disenfranchised out of power, and even if we win the House we’ll never be able to hold it,” said Vicky Hausman, founder and COO of Forward Majority, a political action committee dedicated to winning under-the-radar state legislative seats that was a major player in the Virginia wins.

A plethora of groups are working the state and local territory in 2018. The DLCC focuses on races where it can flip control of legislatures. There are seven chambers that are within a handful of seats of flipping. The Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota state senates are all within one seat of flipping control from red to blue. Virginia, New Hampshire, Arizona and Florida state Senates are also within five seats. Other bodies are bigger reaches, such as the Pennsylvania Senate, where Republicans held an 18-seat advantage after the 2016 election.

But Democrats will try. The DLCC has a 50-state program working with statehouse leaders. And Forward Majority is planning to home in on those fights that will make the biggest difference when it comes to the redistricting battles ahead, and battleground status in presidential years. That means places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.

“There are races out there that are generally off the map for the majority of players that are very much winnable and could be competitive with enough attention,” said Hausman.

Another set of targets is Republican incumbents who have not been recently challenged but whose voting records are no longer in sync with their communities. “There is a set of extremist incumbent Republicans who effectively have gotten a pass, who haven’t had competitive race in years and who have a safe seat and who have been able to hide in the shadows of that safe seat and pass legislation that is completely out of touch with their constituents,” said Hausman.

Catherine Vaughan, founder and CEO of Flippable, also counts herself among the optimistic heading into 2018 — but guardedly so. “The blue wave [in 2017] was so much bigger than anyone expected, which is very exciting and which is what we’re seeing,” she told Yahoo News. “I would add an asterisk and say the caveat there is that especially in a state like Virginia, some of the gains we saw were in high-income, white, suburban districts. Not all of America looks like that, so it might to be harder to flip. Just as we were successful in Virginia, we might have challenges in Pennsylvania or Michigan where the population looks a little different.”

Flippable is seeking to flip 100 seats from red to blue in 2018.

Pennsylvania came up repeatedly as one of the tougher battlegrounds in the fight to flip state legislatures, thanks to the large number of seats that would need to change party hands, gerrymandering and the state’s solidly GOP interior. “We can’t sit back and count on a quote-unquote wave to deliver victories on the ground,” said David Cohen, founder and CEO of Forward Majority. “We’re going to have to fight tooth and nail to take back statehouses from Republicans in every corner of the country.”

For Litman, the target districts are those where the party can recruit outstanding candidates who can exert a reverse-coattail effect on up-ballot races for Congress.

“We need to invest in people, not geography, because in the new era, any district could be winnable,” she recently tweeted. In contrast to the DLCC, “We’re not thinking about this in terms of chambers that are flippable, or redistricting,” she told Yahoo News.

“I think if you’d asked in December 2016 how I was, I would have told you I was devastated and depressed — and I am currently so optimistic and so hopeful about what 2018 will bring,” said Litman.


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