State legislative races may be the sleeper campaigns of the 2020 election. They certainly don’t carry the import of the presidential contest or the races for U.S. Senate. But they matter a great deal to advocacy professionals.
Unlike Congress, where legislation on major social issues can be in short supply, state legislatures regularly debate bills on a large range of issues. State lawmakers pass laws related to gerrymandering, abortion, LBGTQ rights, vaccine mandates, union organizing, Medicaid expansion and many other key issues this year.
Indeed, the majority of U.S. policy making arguably takes place in state legislative chambers. State lawmakers introduce more than 100,000 bills a year on average, many times the number written in Congress. Legislation also moves faster and is passed more often at the state level.
It begs an important question: what impact will the election have on state legislatures?
Historically, Republicans have prioritized state legislative races more than Democrats. Since 2010, Republicans have controlled a majority of state legislatures, and they expanded that control over the years.
Republicans hold a majority in 59 legislative chambers, and Democrats hold a majority in 39 chambers (this totals 98 because Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature and is not counted). Since Trump’s election, Democrats have regained some 300 state legislative seats.
Overall, Republicans have complete control (governor and legislature) in 21 states and Democrats dominate 15. The remaining states are split.
This year, Democrats hope to follow up a successful 2018 election cycle and capitalize on dissatisfaction with President Trump and the handling of the pandemic in some states with an army of energized liberal groups focused on state races.
There are 12,280 candidates running for state legislative seats this year, with more Democrats running than Republicans, according to a new analysis by Ballotpedia. The most competitive races are in Michigan, West Virginia, New Hampshire California and Florida. In total, there are 5,875 state legislative races that will take place in November.
State legislator is often a part-time job, and it rarely pays well. That means incumbents and challengers have to balance running their campaigns remotely during the pandemic while also juggling their other work.
But there is much at stake. Change can happen fast at the state level. For example, in the months after Virginia Democrats took control of their state legislature, laws were passed that raised the minimum wage, let local governments remove confederate statues, granted legal driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, and implemented new regulations to address climate change.
Nationally, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over state legislative seats that could lead to significant shifts in power.
For example, 2010 was a landmark year for state legislative races. Republicans that year won more state legislative seats than either party had in decades. Democrats went from controlling nearly two-thirds of state legislative chambers before the election to controlling less than a third. The Republicans victories gave the party wide authority to redraw congressional district boundaries, which helped them dominate the House of Representatives until the 2018 election.
Now, Democrats are hoping to engineer a similar blowout, building on the 10 state legislative chambers they have taken since Trump became president. They hope to capitalize on frustration with Trump that has led to vulnerabilities among down-ballot Republicans.
It’s a sound strategy. A study by St. Louis University professor Steve Rogers shows that views of the president are three times more likely to affect the outcome of state legislative races than what voters think about the legislature.
“While voters elect and hold the president responsible for one job and state legislators for another, the outcomes of their elections are remarkably related,” the study said.
Of course, Democrats also have their own problems. A super PAC formed in 2017 by Democrats to help state legislative candidates warned last month that candidates in Texas and Florida are substantially underfunded. The PAC, called Forward Majority, notes that money flowing into the Democratic party for U.S. House and Senate races is not trickling down to significant state races.
Overall, Democrats are targeting House and Senate chambers in about a dozen states. They hope to end up with what is considered, in state legislature parlance, a trifecta—controlling the governorship and both chambers of the legislature—in three states: Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Democrats are also trying to break Republican trifectas in Arizona, Iowa, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and West Virginia.
However, in Florida and Georgia, Democrats must win so many seats that they need a landslide to secure a takeover. Florida also stands out because it has seen a late, unexpected increase of first-time candidates at the state level.
Republicans, for their part, are seeking to create more trifectas and divide Democratic trifectas.
There are several issues that could drive results in legislative elections nationwide.
One issue certain to weigh heavily is how states are handling the pandemic. With millions of people losing employer-based health insurance, calls for expanding Medicaid—an issue Democrats favor—are gaining support. State legislative elections may also be a referendum on issues such as whether and how to reopen state economies and whether to grant relief to certain industries.
The national focus on police violence is likely to impact state elections, especially in places like California, where race relations often dominate state—and sometimes national—politics. Candidate positions on how to regulate police budgets and behavior could impact races.
Another key issue is mandatory vaccination. Even before the pandemic, legislators in 26 states introduced bills to limit vaccine exemptions. It remains to be seen how states will act, but voters across the country have strong feelings on whether vaccination should be mandatory or not.
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