After wins, Democrats eye nation's statehouses

Party sets sights on flipping 10 states, including Iowa, but can Virginia success be replicated?

The headquarters of the Democratic National Committee is seen in Washington, U.S. June 14, 2016. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)
The headquarters of the Democratic National Committee is seen in Washington, U.S. June 14, 2016. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

The nationally watched battle for control of the Virginia House of Delegates is a precursor to a broad Democratic effort to flip statehouses blue in 2018 and boost the party’s power to draw legislative maps for the next decade.

Democrats won at least 15 GOP-held seats in Virginia, part of a backlash to President Donald Trump’s ascension that included a host of new groups devoted to down-ballot races, a quadrupling of small donations to Democratic legislative candidates since the last cycle and the largest gubernatorial-year turnout in two decades.

Now Democrats hope to replicate that success across the country.

Seats in 87 of 99 state legislative chambers are on the ballot in 2018.

Republicans hold 67 of those chambers, while Democrats hold 32.

“We have to be aggressive everywhere,” said David Cohen, co-founder of Forward Majority, a new Democratic super PAC focused on state legislatures. “We can’t accept the conventional wisdom of what’s possible.”

But Democratic candidates had several advantages in Virginia that they won’t necessarily have in other states.

And Republicans say they are gearing up to counter a newly energized Democratic push on state races.

While it won’t be clear until November which side will perform better, here is a look at what each party has going for it.

Why Democrats should be concerned

l Lax campaign finance laws in Virginia allowed new organizations focused on state-level races to make large donations to candidates and work with campaigns and other groups to avoid duplicating efforts.

Such coordination isn’t possible in many other states.

l Virginia was a magnet for Democratic energy this fall, a year after Trump was elected and during a campaign season with few significant races in other states. Statehouse candidates in 2018 will have to compete much harder for resources and attention in an election cycle featuring every U.S. House seat, a third of the U.S. Senate seats and three dozen governorships on the ballot.

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l All but one of the Democratic statehouse pickups in Virginia were in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, where Republicans had won seats in the legislature in lower turnout, off-year races.

The Democrats’ path to winning statehouses in places such as Wisconsin and Michigan in 2018 runs through districts that went for Trump in 2016.

“What we saw on election night was an exponential increase on dollars spent and levels of engagement from very progressive and liberal movements to engage in Virginia, really just to win blue districts and claw their way back to neutral,” said Matthew Walter, executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Democrats counter that in other state legislative districts carried by Trump, they won special elections, including in Oklahoma and New Hampshire.

Reasons for Democrats to be optimistic

l Democrats say their gains in the Virginia House were all the more impressive given that Republicans drew the playing field — more specifically, they drew the legislative map in the last round of redistricting, in 2011.

“We beat a gerrymandered map,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s main organ for state legislative races. “Everything is on the table.”

Post said the DLCC thinks that it can flip as many as 10 legislative chambers — including in Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, Arizona and Iowa.

At the same time, however, Democrats cite the Virginia results — Republicans have a one-seat majority, with one seat in limbo and Democrats seeking a new election in another — as proof that many races remain an uphill battle because of gerrymandering.

l The party will have big-name help in its effort.

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Former president Barack Obama has made reversing Democratic losses in statehouses his top political priority. His former attorney general, Eric Holder, chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which saw Virginia as a first chance to support gubernatorial and legislative candidates in an effort to shrink Republican influence over redistricting.

l Democrats might have demographics, as well as resources, in their favor. Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, notes that the biggest Democratic routs in Virginia ran through suburban districts where fiscal-minded Republicans and independents turned off by Trump are living. Her group also spent money on digital ads targeting young and black voters whom Democrats don’t usually count on to vote in non-presidential races.

Cohen, of the Forward Majority super PAC, said Virginia showed that voters are more willing to pay attention to digital ads targeting Republicans over votes on controversial issues, provided the money is there to fund such campaigns.

“The main takeaway that we’ve seen thus far is a change in strategy to spend significant resources to mobilize some of the strongest assets in their arsenal,” said Walter, the head of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Will they be able to keep up this torrid pace of spending when it’s not just two general elections in blue states, but when you have elections going on all across the country?”

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