The Fight For State Legislatures Begins

The battle for control of the country's many state legislatures is looming.

The drubbing Republicans took on Tuesday revealed more than just a window into the looming battle for control of the U.S. Senate and House chambers next year. The shocking losses endured by Republican members in the Virginia House of Delegates highlight an imminent battle for something many political talking heads have never paid much attention to, but a sector of American government that wields a remarkable amount of power: the control of state capitols.

Much has already been analyzed about Virginia’s gubernatorial and down-ballot races. Yes, it was a referendum on President Trump, and yes, it was a result of extreme Democratic voter enthusiasm. But there is much more going on here. Democrats did not just win the three statewide races at play in Virginia.

Heading into Election Day, Virginia Democrats only controlled 34 out of 100 House of Delegate seats — a size so small even the most conservative of forecasters predicted their numbers would grow at least by some numbers. However, the gains made by their party shocked Democrats themselves. As of this writing, Democrats have expanded their caucus to a total of 49 seats, with several races under a recount and could possibly lead to Republicans losing majority control altogether.

The major gains made by Virginia Democrats could be explained by the fact that Old Dominion has trended blue in recent years — voting for the Democratic candidate in three past presidential elections. However, Virginia wasn’t the only state on Tuesday where local Republicans took a shellacking.

Georgia — a ruby red state by any definition — witnessed three state legislative seats flip party control, two state House seats and a state Senate seat fell into Democratic hands. The two districts that flipped, previously occupied by GOP state Reps. Chuck Williams and Regina Quick, are so conservative, they weren’t even contested by Democrats last year.

Also on Tuesday night, Washington state Republicans lost their state Senate majority, and local Democrats won special elections in areas across the country.

This isn’t simply the result of Democratic voter enthusiasm generated by President Trump. Taking a close look at the money invested in these races, we see Democratic operatives and donors who have adopted a newfound interest in state legislatures.

An interesting observation made following the 14+ Democratic gains in the Virginia House of Delegates.

One more screen shot to drive home what we’re talking about here.

These tweets are completely accurate. A look into the Virginia Public Access Project reveals that Democratic candidates enjoyed monumental amounts of campaign donations over the Republicans they unseated.

For example, Republican Bob Marshall had occupied his Delegate seat for 26 years. It should certainly raise eyebrows that a 33-year-old transgender, who has never before run for elected office and holds no political experience whatsoever, can not only outspend Marshall, but outspend him by almost half a million dollars.

A look through campaign finance records and we see the same type of spending disparities across the board among down-ballot Virginia candidates. Democratic candidates — many of them novices who typically would never have the connections to amass such fundraising numbers — were able to far outspend Republicans in their quest to capture their districts. Campaign expenditures to this degree are not usually seen for such local races.

So what the heck happened?

Local Republicans flourished under the Obama years. GOP state legislators saw their numbers grow in the hundreds since the 2010 sweep and onward. Peaking after the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in 32 state capitols across the country. Democrats only enjoyed total control of state legislatures in 13 states.

Unlike the gridlock we see in Congress, partisan domination in a state capitol results in serious authority in policy agendas. Control of a state’s upper and lower chamber and gubernatorial seat (referred to as trifecta control) gives a sate party almost unchecked power in legislative priorities and has showcased states as microcosms of what partisan domination looks like. The laws passed in California make it look almost unrecognizable in comparison to states like Texas or Oklahoma.

Given Republican domination of down-ballot races, it’s the GOP that has enjoyed the spoils that come with state control. Not only are states across the country able to pass legislation that Republicans in Congress appear incapable of doing (despite their majorities in the U.S. Senate and House), but local Republicans are given one thing in particular that has proven to be a game changer in American politics: control of the redistricting process.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census releases their updated numbers of the American population. With these new numbers bring changes in the number of congressional seats allotted to each state. The new numbers mean state governments are tasked with adjusting their congressional districts accordingly. And of course, control of this process means control of how the districts are created. State government control has awarded the Republican Party with an upper hand in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For a long time, national Democrats, marveling at their own advantages in the Electoral College, had turned a blind eye to local politics. However, in the face of Republican domination in state capitols and the U.S. House not seen in almost a century, progressives are redirecting their attention.

In September, a group of former Obama operatives formed a political action committee, named Forward Majority, with only one focus: winning state legislative races for Democratic candidates. Not much attention was paid to Forward Majority when it was founded only a few weeks ago and announced an ambitious goal of capturing 12 legislative bodies. Unfortunately, this local-focused PAC garnered enormous amounts of attention following the Virginia House of Delegates sweep.

The numerous seats won by Democrats were helped in part by a $1 million dollar investment in campaign advertisements by Forward Majority. The innovated strategies conducted by the group, co-founded by Obama campaign senior staffer David Cohen, resulted in the shocking election outcomes.

According to Forward Majority’s website, they are only just getting started. The group is very blunt in their stated purpose of gaining control of the redistricting process. They also tout on their homepage a desire to see restrictions placed on our Second Amendment rights and greater access to abortion.

The game has changed and Democrats are ready to go to war for the state legislatures we currently control.

How do we fight back?

We simply invest the same amount of interest — if not more. The Democrats have a built-in advantage when it comes to the Electoral College, but we hold the advantage at the local level. By simply matching progressives in resources into state legislative campaigns, we will undercut their attempts.

The major losses in Virginia seem terrible, right? But did you know that only one of the seats that flipped had been won by Trump the year prior, and only by one percentage point. The vast majority of the House of Delegate seats taken by Democrats were previously won by Hillary Clinton, and those seats were only captured after unmatched investments were made by progressive donors — many of them resulting in the thinnest margins of victory.

This alone showcases the GOP’s advantage at the local level.

The GOP is the party of the everyday man. Controlling power at the local and state levels is a testament to our image and the preservation of common sense legislation despite the nonsense coming out of Washington, D.C.

Let’s keep it that way.

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