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It’s easy to reduce the stakes for any Election Day to the White House race. It feeds a billion-dollar campaign industry, draws the biggest headlines and turns even the most benign of venues, such as front lawns, into public squares for political signalling — and that’s during normal times without this year’s urgencies of pandemic, recession and racial reckoning.
But the vast majority of contests underway right now are at the state and local level. And that’s actually where most Americans’ day-to-day interaction with government takes place. Want your town’s bridge repaired? That’s probably your county engineer. Need your school district to better use learn-from-home technology? See your school board. Utility rates, transit schedules, senior-center hours? Probably more the purview of your local leaders than anything President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will be yammering about tonight at their final debate. The person in the White House has the nuclear launch codes, but your zoning board determines if that deck you want to build next spring passes code.
State races are also pivotal to determining the future composition of Congress. That’s why the two major parties are spending tens of millions of dollars in key races there right now. In state legislature races, one Democratic super PAC this week announced it was doubling its investment to $12 million — just to flip just the Texas statehouse. A swing of just nine seats in Texas’ 150-person chamber could put Democrats in control in a state that has been tantalizingly close for Democrats in every election in recent memory. More broadly, the Democrats’ main election arm for state legislatures has invested $50 million this cycle to help down-ballot lawmakers.
Their Republican counterparts aren’t publicly announcing their budgets, but in the third fiscal quarter alone, they raised an eye-popping $23 million for state legislative races and have no plans on keeping any of it as a nest-egg for 2022.“There’s been at least $100 million in what we can see from national liberal groups on state legislative races,” says David Abrams, the deputy executive director at the Republican State Leadership Committee, citing the organization’s own tracking and publicly available information. “While we have far out-paced our direct counterparts, we’re up against a huge galaxy of liberal groups that for the first time committed money down the ballot.”
I can see you rolling your eyes at these massive sums of cash on what are largely seen as small-ball jobs. With a few exceptions, the pay for state legislators is lousy and the work is part-time. (New Mexico’s lawmakers work for free, New Hampshire’s are paid $100 a year, Montana and Kansas pay about $90 per day the legislature is meeting.)
Their power, though, is far-reaching. In more than half of the states, the legislatures draw the U.S. House district lines. As I wrote last year, the battle for the battleground actually unfolds in statehouse races. That’s why big names like former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are leading their respective parties’ efforts to have control over House districts’ borders by securing partisan power in the state legislatures. If you want to take a marker to the borders of your state’s congressional districts, first you have to convince voters to hand your party the Sharpie.
This is the Democrats’ first shot since 2000 to have redistricting and a White House race coincide, says Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. District borders are pegged to the Census, which counts how many people live where and typically forces officials to tinker with boundaries as some areas gain neighbors and others shed populations. The goal, in the ideal, is to have every district have an equal number of people so that every member of Congress has the same number of constituents. “The next time we’ll have time this opportunity is in 2040,” Post tells me by phone. Across the aisle, Republicans also acknowledge the stakes. “If the Republican Party wants any chance of winning a congressional majority in the next 10 years, we have to win in some of these races,” Abrams tells me, also by phone.
Both campaign committees recognize that local state legislative races could end up literally determining who the House Speaker is in Washington after 2022. Because so many states let their local lawmakers draw the maps, partisans can orchestrate idiot-proof districts that can protect their allies. In recent years, that has worked in Republicans’ favor. Democrats took their eyes off the ball for state races in recent decades and, as a result, were relegated to impossible-to-win maps. In 2010, Democrats lost almost 700 state legislative seats and gave Republicans the power to draw lopsided maps that gave the GOP a disproportionate number of U.S. House seats in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Only a blue-wave election of 2018 gave Democrats the opportunity to break Republicans’ smartly drawn firewalls in House races.
Republicans still control 59 out of the 99 state legislative chambers in the country and can still scrawl partisan battle lines on maps next year. (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is the lone that lacks a state house and state senate. Its state capitol also is one of my favorites and worth a visit if ever you find yourself in Lincoln.) If Democrats can net 48 seats in this election — of the 600 races they’re watching — they can flip 10 chambers and take back some measure of power.
Still, the Republicans have for years had the upper hand when it comes to state legislative races. It’s how they dominated most of the 2010s. The state legislative races are relatively cheap and feed the pipeline of future talent. Democrats are playing catch-up. But with Trump in the White House and Biden pulling ahead in polls, there’s a reason why Democrats are feeling better than they have in years. Then again, it’s 2020, and who knows what’s going to happen?
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