The most important election of 2020 arguably isn’t for the White House — it’s the battle for control of America’s state legislatures.
Historically overlooked by national Democrats, local legislatures have been under Republican control in a majority of states since 2010 (a majority they expanded on in 2014). Republicans now have total control of 30 state legislatures — both the House and Senate — compared to just 18 by Democrats. Just two states, Minnesota and Alaska, have split chambers.
This has massive consequences for national politics: In many states, state legislatures draw new US congressional maps every 10 years after the Census. The 2010 elections resulted in severely gerrymandered maps in states like North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, where Republicans have hung onto outsized congressional majorities even as their states have gotten more purple.
A recent Supreme Court ruling said federal courts can’t rule on partisan gerrymandering maps, handing more power to state courts and legislatures. And with the 2020 election coming up, Republicans have the chance to solidify those lopsided majorities — as long as they can hang onto power in the states to keep drawing the maps.
“The state legislatures are probably just as important as the presidency,” Harvard professor and political scientist Theda Skocpol told me. “In a lot of ways, they’re the whole ballgame.”
Skocpol describes the 2020 stakes in stark terms: With gerrymandering, politicians have the ability to pick their voters rather than the other way around. Democrats in Maryland are also guilty of gerrymandering, but by and large, Republicans have been the biggest practitioners of the practice — demonstrating they aren’t much interested in majority rule.
“It’s kind of late in the game, it’s the fourth quarter. The Democrats are behind by two touchdowns, and they have biased referees on the sidelines,” Skocpol said. “They have to win the game anyway. 2020 and 2022 are the most important elections in American history in my opinion, probably right up there with 1860.”
1860, in case you need to Google it, is when Abraham Lincoln was elected. It also set the stage for the American Civil War.
Amanda Litman, a co-founder of progressive recruitment organization Run for Something, described the stakes another way.
“If we don’t win these state legislatures, it doesn’t matter who the fuck the president is,” Litman said. “That’s the end of functioning government in Washington.”
Democrats largely agree that for years, Republicans have far outgunned them with organizing and fundraising when it comes to state legislative races. In the past, Democrats have been much more focused on winning the presidency and Congress.
The big wake-up call came in 2016. The party had been feeling confident Hillary Clinton would win the White House; instead they were dealt a devastating blow with Donald Trump’s election the presidency, alongside solid Republican majorities in the US House and Senate. Facing two more years out of power, Democrats were forced to confront what they were doing wrong.
The answer was complicated, but one glaring oversight was a lack of consistent investment in smaller state races. In pursuit of the White House and Congress, Democrats had neglected to build up a bench in the states. Republicans, on the other hand, recognized that real power lies in state legislatures — both to make policy and to preserve their electoral power. (The Republican State Leadership Committee didn’t comment for this story.)
“Conservatives have been better investing in these organizations continuously,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist and professor at Columbia University. “As soon as [Democrats] gained power in Washington and the presidency, the attention shifted back there. Conservatives have been much savvier at enacting policies that either boost their electoral chances or diminish the power on the left.”
The consequences for policy have also been dire: Republican legislatures across the country have gone after public sector unions with right-to-work laws, and passed a raft of strict anti-abortion laws (the most strict was a recent Alabama law essentially banning abortion).
Democrats don’t want to make the same mistake again.
“In ‘15 and ‘16 I think people really started to wake up,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “I think Democrats at large started to review our strategy.”
They have a very limited window to fight back; the next year and a half is crucial.
The Democratic Party and DLCC flipped eight state chambers in 2018 and broke Republican supermajorities in three other states. Post says they’re planning to expand on that in 2020, with a targeted list of 12 states:
There are two big things that could make a difference for Democrats in 2020: increased fundraising and galvanized progressive groups. 2018 showed the blue wave was real, and Democrats need to build on that to do well in 2020.
The DLCC is already planning to match its Republican counterpart the RSLC in fundraising: they’re planning to match the RSLC’s $50 million fundraising goal. That’s a significant increase from the $35 million the DLCC spent in 2018. They’ve also increased staff and resources exponentially from past years — but in 2020, they’ll be joined by a lot of other progressive groups spending money focused on flipping state legislatures.
Luckily for the Democratic Party, the shock of Trump’s election caused voters to organize in a way the party hadn’t seen in years. National grassroots group Indivisible established member chapters across the US, and many other groups popped up to help recruit and train candidates for local races. That organizing was crucial to help Democrats take back the US House in 2018, but it was also key in state elections.
These groups are the Democratic Party’s last best hope to salvage state legislatures going into 2020, according to Harvard professor Skocpol.
“It’s very important what happens, and a lot of the answer is going to lie in whether these citizens groups that have popped up since 2016 … whether they keep the energy going to run for office,” she said.
Some outside groups focused specifically on state legislatures are targeted on a smaller number of states and districts that will matter especially for redistricting in 2021. Liberal Super PAC Forward Majority is focused on a number of districts in Texas, North Carolina, and Florida — three states that are consequential to the US House map.
“We’ve become laser focused on a strategic set of races that we determine if we succeed in winning in 2020, we can essentially put an end to Republican gerrymandering in America,” said Forward Majority spokesperson Ben Wexler-Waite. “A lot of it depends on whether or not we become so consumed by the presidential that we let what has happened the last few years happen again.”
In 2018, Forward Majority spent $2.2 million in Texas alone — their largest investment in any state that year. They’re planning to invest heavily there in 2020 as well.
“It’s totally possible we could flip the Texas state house,” Wexler-Waite said. “If we actually start to compete we have a shot.”
Groups like Run for Something, Sister District, Emerge America, and Emily’s List are forming a large network to recruit, train, and give new local and state candidates resources to compete and win.
“Our long-term 20-year goal is to build permanent candidate recruitment infrastructure in all 50 states,” Litman said. “I think we are at a turning point. This isn’t a fad, this is an on ramp.”
“It’s the everything stakes,” Post said. “American democracy is on the line in 2020.”