Stop Biden Your Time: Winning the States is about more than Coattails
Yesterday, Jonathan Martin at the New York Times published an article about the lobbying that Democratic leaders in various quarters are doing to encourage the Biden campaign to expand their geographic horizons to invest in states that could pay dividends in the Senate and state legislative races.
As experts on the state legislative landscape, we think that these well-meaning advocates have the story backwards. Biden is undoubtedly polling well in a broad set of states. As you can find in the report we released today, that puts Democrats in a good position to flip some of the most critical state legislative chambers for 2020. But as we have seen time and again, performance at the top of the ticket does not guarantee transformation at the bottom. Despite big nights for Democrats in statewide races in places like Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2018, Republicans still control those state legislatures.
There are three fundamental reasons why statewide success won’t necessarily bring change to the state capitols.
- Insufficient State Legislative Candidate Fundraising. Across the country, Democratic state legislative candidates continue to trail their Republican opponents. Last month the Republican State Legislative Committee outraised the DLCC nearly two-to-one. In 2018, we found that substantially losing the fundraising battle meant that Democratic state legislative candidates lost, even in districts Democrats carried at the top of the ticket.
- Downballot Drop-off. Downballot drop-off occurs when voters select candidates at the top of the ticket, but not for smaller races like state legislative races. Downballot drop-off increases when state legislative candidates do not have the resources they need to compete.
- Gerrymandering and Geography. Republican control of the states in 2010 has created highly gerrymandered state legislative chambers. For example, in 2012 Republicans held a supermajority in the Wisconsin Assembly despite losing the popular vote in state legislative races. At the same time, the geography of where Democrats need to win votes to win statewide can differ from what’s needed to win in the districts necessary to shift control of state legislative chambers. That means that even if one thought the Biden campaign were the vehicle to make state legislative change, it is unlikely that a savvy presidential campaign would invest heavily in all the communities that are needed for state legislative race wins.
What should Democrats be doing? Investing directly in the state legislative campaigns of Democrats running to flip the districts that will have the greatest impact on state legislative control and redistricting, both in places where the Biden campaign is emphasizing and where the current moment has made him viable. Here’s a quick summary of what is possible:
Biden Focus States
- Arizona: In Arizona, Democrats need to flip three Senate seats and two House seats to flip the legislature. While the seats Democrats need are generally GOP-leaning, this is a top Democratic pickup opportunity with the right resources.
- Florida: In Florida, Democrats need to flip 14 seats to flip the State House. Our modeling indicates an outside chance to win the chamber if Democrats can match Biden’s impressive polling in the state. With only half of the State Senate on the ballot this year, Democrats are unlikely to flip the chamber but can make progress toward flipping the chamber in 2022.
- Michigan: In Michigan, Democrats need to flip four seats to flip the State House. If Democrats maintain their current advantage in the state, they are well-poised to take over this chamber.
- Minnesota: In Minnesota, Democrats need to flip two seats to flip the State Senate. Since Democrats already control the State House and the governorship, this would make Minnesota a Democratic trifecta state. The Minnesota Senate is perhaps the most likely Democratic pickup this year, but shifts in rural Minnesota away from Democrats mean that incumbent protection may have a large impact on how well Democrats do in November.
- North Carolina: In North Carolina, Democrats need to flip five Senate seats and six House seats. Since Democrats already control the governorship, this would make North Carolina a Democratic trifecta state. Democrats have a strong set of candidates to make both chambers competitive.
- Pennsylvania: In Pennsylvania, Democrats need to flip four seats to get to a tie in the Senate and nine seats to flip the House. The race for both chambers is quite competitive, and Pennsylvania is seeing large influxes of Republican money to defend the majorities already. Since Democrats already control the governorship and lieutenant governorship, this would make Pennsylvania a Democratic trifecta state.
- Wisconsin: In Wisconsin, Democrats need to flip 14 seats to flip the Assembly (the State House). While Democrats have only an outside chance to win the chamber, due to one of the worst gerrymanders in the country, major gains are quite possible.
The Broader Purple Landscape
- Georgia: In Georgia, Democrats need to flip 16 seats to flip the State House. While we do not expect Democrats to win the chamber this year, there are strong demographic shifts in the state and Democratic primary turnout was quite high in critical districts. Big gains in November appear possible.
- Iowa: In Iowa, Democrats need to flip eight seats to flip the State Senate and four seats to flip the State House. While the Senate is unlikely to flip this year – with only half the races up – the House is probably one of the most winnable chambers for Democrats this year, if the presidential and U.S. Senate races can remain competitive.
- Kansas: In Kansas, Democrats need to flip three State Senate seats and one State House seat to break the GOP supermajority in the legislature. With strong demographic shifts toward Democrats in the right places in Kansas, we see this important power-shift happening in almost any scenario, provided candidates get their names out.
- Ohio: In Ohio, Democrats need to flip three Senate seats and two House seats to break the GOP supermajority in the legislature. We see this as an achievable outcome this year, but as Senator Brown has noted, Ohio is struggling to get the attention it deserves despite the opportunities in the state.
- Texas: In Texas, Democrats need to flip nine seats to flip the State House. There is no shortage of attention in Texas, and if the presidential race is really as close as the polling says, Democrats are in contention to snag a majority for the first time in a long while. It is still an uphill battle in a changing landscape.
If they really want to see change happen in what could be a banner year, state-level leaders should lead the charge to get grassroots supporters excited about the change-making opportunity in the states, so that we can overcome the current fundraising gaps with Republicans.
How can Biden help the state legislative landscape? The downballot drop-off phenomenon means that increasing the connection between the top of the ticket to state legislative candidates will play large dividends. The Biden campaign should make his likeness and endorsement available in the near future to the candidates in the key districts where his strong support can make the difference in November. The elected leaders in these states who have shown the capacity for broad appeal – the Tammy Baldwins and Sherrod Browns of the world – should do the same.
With this coordinated and broad effort for the state legislative campaigns and districts themselves, Democrats can make more expansive pickups this year. That is what everyone can be working toward.
EveryDistrict PAC is a political organization focused on winning state legislatures through data and dollars. EveryDistrict’s analysis of the competitiveness of every state legislative district is available at www.EveryDistrict.us/The-EveryDistrict-Map. Since 2017, EveryDistrict has provided direct financial contributions to over 100 state legislative candidates across seven states through grassroots fundraising efforts. If you’d like to support the state legislative candidates in these purple states who need it most, contribute to EveryDistrict’s Top Ten list here.