Democrats scramble to reclaim lost ground in statehouse battles

Arizona state Sen. Lela Alston (D) was sitting at home on Nov. 3 last year huddled with her campaign advisers on Zoom with “huge expectations” that her party could flip at least one chamber of the state legislature.

Democrats had high hopes that a surge in turnout could deliver them victories up and down the ballot and give them a foothold in the Arizona state government. But as the night wore on, it quickly became clear they would fall short, leaving the state legislature solely in GOP hands.

“It was definitely a roller coaster,” Alston said. “We were looking good with early returns. And then of course, the crushing heartbreak of losing was very sad for me.”

Now, Democrats are licking their wounds and looking to cobble together a new strategy for success in state legislative races after failing to flip a single chamber throughout the entire country last year. Those defeats are particularly stinging now as Republicans are left in control of redistricting for 187 House districts, while Democrats will have full control to delineate just 84.

Those defeats stand in stark contrast to the victories Democrats projected in states like Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas. Adding insult to injury, Democrats also ceded both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature.

And with redistricting coming just ahead of the 2022 midterms, those losses have Democrats alarmed.

“I think it’s devastating,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which helps Democrats win state legislative races. “If we hold the House in 2022, it will be a structural miracle. Because Democrats failing to flip a single chamber and in fact losing two in 2020 is the kind of thing that will set Congress back decades.”

It is that alarm that is fueling Democrats’ scramble to achieve greater success in state legislative races.

Heather Williams, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said the party is “in the process of solidifying our strategy” and “ready to do recruitment and find candidates for seats on condensed timelines,” noting that redistricting will delay the entry of candidates in some races.

“I think it’s imperative that Democrats win back state legislatures across the country,” added Pennsylvania state Sen. Jay Costa, who serves as Democrats’ floor leader. “I can’t tell you how many years we’ve been trying to do it. And we’ve come close, we take three steps forward, and then over two cycles we take six steps back.”

Democrats have been tantalizingly close in several chambers. The party last year was two seats away from flipping the Arizona state House and Minnesota Senate and nine seats away from flipping the Texas state House, to name a few. Democrats made no headway in Arizona or Texas and won only one seat in Minnesota.

Nearly a dozen Democrats who spoke to The Hill said that the top priority is adjusting their messaging strategy for state races.

Democrats have preached as gospel for years that the party succeeds both locally and nationally when focusing on kitchen table issues like health care, jobs and education.

However, the party is looking to take that one step further by vocalizing the connections between specific communities and those issues rather than have a blanket talking point on issues like expanding access to health care.

Democrats must “communicate what we want to do and what we’re trying to do, and again, depending upon what part of the state you’re talking about. … In Southeast Pennsylvania … there’s a message along those lines,” Costa said. “In the southwestern part of the state, which is trending significantly more Republican, it’s a different conversation.”

That effort could be aided by an increased reliance on grassroots outreach rather than overanalyzing national trends.

“Sometimes we get a little too poll-driven. I think a lot of times the values we espouse are very much in line with where a lot of voters are at, but sometimes they’ll try to narrow it down to a specific poll question, which I think, in turn, sounds less genuine than it needs to and then you have these sort of cookie-cutter campaigns,” said Jim Ananich, the incoming Democratic leader in the Michigan state Senate.

To be sure, Democrats will not be able to fully shirk nationalized messaging. The midterm cycle will be a referendum on President Biden, and Republican attack lines are expected to focus largely on the White House.

Democrats say tying themselves to Biden’s successes will be key but they will need to walk a tightrope to avoid getting swept up in GOP attacks.

“I think we have to embrace it, explain it and make sure people understand how much it’s helping,” Ananich said. “I think we have to make sure we wrap our arms around it first, for now, and then not let Republicans pin us down in these culture wars, they’re just really BS.”

Walking that line will require the type of unity that has been scarce among Democrats.

The party remains riven with internal squabbles, including on issues like “defund the police” and voting rights.

Moderates say those issues made centrist candidates vulnerable, while progressives say strong stances on those topics are needed to energize voters. But every Democrat acknowledges that some form of unity is needed to shore up their defenses.

“That would be the ideal thing,” said Arizona’s Alston, “but I don’t know that in the Democratic Party that’s ever been the reality.”

Beyond policy presentation, Democrats also need donors and the party infrastructure to step up early.

Several Democrats who spoke to The Hill lamented that Republicans put a greater emphasis on state legislative races and that money must start flowing now to be prepared for 2022 and beyond, including for the next redistricting cycle.

“The investments need to start getting made now because we need to be looking towards 2030 at this point, making sure that we’re building power,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, another co-founder of Run for Something. “We know we’re in a bunch of states, things are going to get worse for us, and a handful of states they may get a little bit better. But in these places where Republicans are in control, it’s going to be extra hard.”

Still, even if Democrats are successful in their efforts, the party is starting off the decade on its back foot.

The party will face historical headwinds given that the party in the White House typically loses ground in midterm elections, and Republicans are virtually guaranteed to bolster their position with redistricting.

“Of course, that is what they will do,” said DLCC’s Williams. “Rather than having a playing field that allows the best person to win, Republicans have gerrymandered the system, they have created a system that entrenches their own power and does not create an environment that represents the people in the state.”

Republicans are already boasting after an early success this week when a GOP candidate flipped a Connecticut state Senate district that Biden won by 25 points.

“We aren’t typically in the business of offering free advice to our opponents, but after their embarrassing loss last night in Connecticut, here’s a start: get an agenda people like,” said Republican State Leadership Committee Communications Director Andrew Romeo.

But Democrats insist they are undeterred by early losses or the looming environment for the midterms, saying the fight for state chambers goes far beyond 2022.

“This is not a scenario where you show up in the last election of the decade to try to flip a chamber,” said Texas state Rep. Trey Martínez Fischer (D). “You spend a decade committing yourself to flipping a chamber in a particular state, and you don’t give up. You don’t play the short game on this, this is a long game.”

Via The Hill

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