Analysis | The Trailer: The pricey and increasingly heated race for state legislatures

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Last Friday, as they walked in and out of an early-vote site in this conservative-leaning city, a number of Arizonans told the same story. In another year, they might have split their ballots, or voted Republican. This year, they looked for any candidate with a “D” by their names, up and down the ballot. 

“I left the Republican Party 12, 13 years ago, and it has done nothing to win me back,” said Fred Toth, 71, explaining that he could elect “new people” by voting for local Democrats.

Voters such as these have put Arizona in play, making Republicans here nervous about losing this year’s presidential and U.S. Senate races. And adding to their worries: The suburban voters who have bucked the state’s conservative tradition are also putting Republican control of the legislature at risk. Losing just two state House seats or three state Senate seats would break the party’s “trifecta,” its total control of state government. Democrats are trying to do the same in other swing states, after a years-long, multimillion-dollar campaign to get donors large and small to pay attention to state legislatures again. 

They may be peaking at the right time. Although just a handful of state legislatures are seen as truly competitive, Republicans are racing to prevent the loss of three swing-state chambers — Arizona’s state House and Senate, and Minnesota’s state Senate, where a gain of two seats would put Democrats in control. (At the moment, Minnesota is the only state in the country with the two major parties splitting control of the legislature.)

Republicans are also nervously eyeing legislatures that looked to be put out of liberals’ reach by Republican-friendly maps: the state House of Representatives in Georgia and Texas, and the Pennsylvania state Senate. That would require a 16-seat swing in Georgia, an eight-seat swing in Texas, and a five-seat swing in Pennsylvania. In Iowa, where Democrats were wiped out four years ago, Republicans are trying to keep Joe Biden’s party from picking up the state House, which would happen if they net four seats. And there is no place where Democrats look to be struggling for resources.

“They are getting a ton of money for races at the state and even county level,” said Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, who served in the state Senate before winning a special U.S. House election in 2018. “For goodness’ sake, do you know how much TV advertising costs right now? When I see it for these state legislative candidates, I don’t know how they can afford it. They must be getting beaucoups bucks from outside.”

Democrats, who were locked out of key state legislatures after their landslide 2010 defeats, have spent the decade since planning their revenge. Republicans, benefiting from a backlash to the Obama presidency, invested millions of dollars before the 2010 election in a project titled “REDMAP,” with the premise — entirely correct — that controlling state legislatures during a redistricting cycle could lock in partisan control for years. Republican state houses would draw Republican-friendly maps, both for congressional districts and their own seats. Even in 2018, when Democrats won sweeping statewide victories in places such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, they ran out of votes to flip seats that had been built to protect against any “blue wave.”

After 2016, Democratic worries about this helped birth a number of new political groups, from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former attorney general Eric Holder, to Run for Something, a group founded by Hillary Clinton campaign veteran Amanda Litman to help more activists become down-ballot candidates. The Democrats’ long-ignored down-ballot campaign organization, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, set a goal of raising $50 million for the cycle, which it’s on track to meet. Its Republican counterpart raised $23 million in the third quarter alone. 

Much of the Democrats’ strength was building in 2018 and 2019, when they flipped eight legislative chambers and won hundreds of seats. But in interviews around the Phoenix suburbs, Democratic candidates said that the environment had gotten even better for them. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had supercharged Democratic fundraising all the way down the ballot, and voters were angry at Republican Gov. Doug Ducey over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, creating another opening. 

“I’m on the phone with voters all the time, and I usually hear that the state opened up too soon,” said Christine Porter Marsh, who’s trying to oust a Republican state senator in Scottsdale. “I rarely hear the opposite, that we shouldn’t have shut down at all.”

Republicans admit that they’re on defense this cycle and that their position has softened in sync with the president’s. New Hampshire, where Joe Biden leads in polls but Republican Gov. Chris Sununu leads his opponent by a wide margin, is seen as their best opportunity to flip one or two chambers. Alaska is right next to it, with a crazy-quilt coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans likely to lose control of the House next month, after two coalition members announced that they’d caucus with Republicans.

In the rest of the country, Republicans are largely holding the line, or trying to. After the legislatures that look to be genuinely in danger of flipping, they’re trying to prevent any Democratic surprises in Florida and North Carolina, defend a supermajority in Kansas’s House, and prevent Democrats from winning one in New York’s state Senate. Republicans are just a few seats away from supermajorities in Ohio and Wisconsin, which would give them more power to draw the next decade’s maps; in Wisconsin, for example, a supermajority could override a veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Legislative Committee, said that Democrats had a clear advantage and that anything less than eight red-to-blue victories in chambers across the country would amount to a bad year for the party.

“They’ve got at least 40 different groups that are investing in state legislative races,” Chambers said. “They’ve got all the money they could ask for and then some. If they aren’t able to get what they at least got in 2018 or more, in this environment, then I think it’s been a miserable failure for the Democrats.”

DLCC President Jessica Post laughed out loud at the stakes set by Chambers. Democrats wouldn’t put a number on their expectations. But unlike four or six years ago, she said, there was no place where the party was struggling for money, and no place where donors needed to be convinced that legislatures mattered. Republican messaging in close races told a story, too, with candidates who had not struggled to win before accusing Democrats of wanting to “defund” police departments and co-opting some of their opponents’ messaging, promising to be good stewards of education spending.

“Obviously the Trump administration has just destroyed the Republican brand,” Post said. “But I’d add that Republicans have also governed very conservatively, without a lot of accountability, in these competitive states. They’ve been terrible on education funding, they’ve been bad on racial justice; it’s let us go to moderate voters in the suburbs and say, look, this isn’t your father’s Republican Party.” 

Reading list

It’s starting to matter which party controls the election board from county to county.

Why Democrats are favored to hold their 2018 gains, and then some.

What it’s like on the Trump trail.

Get ready to learn a lot about the 12th Amendment!

The pattern of both campaigns’ social media buys.

The lawn-sign wars have changed since 2016.

Turnout watch

Three full weeks before Election Day, we’re quickly approaching a milestone: Ballots cast in 2020 will surpass 10 percent of total ballots cast in the 2016 election. According to the U.S. Election Project, nearly 12 million voters have cast early votes or sent back mail votes as of Tuesday morning. Total turnout in 2016 was close to 134 million; the country is on track to exceed that, with record first-day turnout in states with in-person early voting, and a lopsidedly Democratic electorate mailing ballots back quickly. In three swing states, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, early voting has already passed 20 percent of the 2016 total.

Ad watch

CLF, “Totally.” It has been a while since trackers, who show up to political events to film candidates or ask them troublesome questions, have had access to most Democrats. By and large, the party’s candidates went all in on “virtual campaigning,” limiting their exposure to Zoom calls and live events that often require a credential to enter. But the GOP super PAC makes use here of an interaction with Democrat Kate Schroeder, who’s running in Ohio’s 1st District, over her answer to a tracker on whether she supports the Green New Deal: “Oh, yeah, totally.” The botched branding of the climate plan continues to haunt Democrats who backed it.

Millions of Michiganians, “USPS.” A PAC created to boost both Joe Biden and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, MoM is decidedly un-flashy. Peters appears here in a Zoom hearing with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, recalling how he “launched an investigation” into pre-election changes to mail systems, before the audio cuts out, replaced by sad piano melodies. “We deserve mail we can rely on and elected officials who have our backs.”

Duty and Country, “Life and Love.” A super PAC built by Democrats to play in Kansas’s Senate race, this goes after GOP nominee Roger Marshall, a doctor, for helping start a for-profit hospital that out-competed a local nonprofit hospital. “His only love? Money,” a narrator says dramatically. It’s not a new attack on Marshall, but the continued Democratic interest in the race is surprising at this stage of the election.

Senate Leadership Fund, “Tablet.” The GOP’s Senate super PAC expands on a theme we’ve seen all year, accusing Democrats, even those who do not support Medicare-for-all, of essentially supporting the end of insurance as we know it by backing a public option. (Medicare-for-all would make most private plans illegal by replacing them with a universal system. The public option wouldn’t.) A mother in this ad flips through a tablet that suggests Iowa Democrat Theresa Greenfield backs a plan under which voters could “lose access to [their] doctor,” while Sen. Joni Ernst “supports employer-provided health insurance.” The trick: The ad never says that Greenfield would eliminate that insurance.

Poll watch

Gary Peters (D): 43% (+2) 
John James (R): 42% (+11)

Since the summer, as Joe Biden’s lead in Michigan has remained steady or slightly expanded, the state’s junior Democratic senator has been locked in a tight race with James, a Black veteran and businessman who ran and lost a 2018 race for Michigan’s other Senate seat. The Republican theory of this race always started with Peters, a head-down senator with little national profile, being unknown and easy to define. Sure enough, he’s about as well known and well liked as James: Peters’s net favorable rating is 12 points, while James’s is 10 points. That’s after one of the most expensive air wars in state history, with James and allied PACs portraying Peters as a do-nothing senator who skips committee meetings, and Peters attacking James as a lockstep vote for Republicans. The question for Republicans, in a bad environment for them overall: Whether they can persuade some Biden voters to split their tickets. James is statistically even with President Trump among Black voters and independents, two groups that break more strongly for Biden than for Peters.

Cal Cunningham (D): 48% (+2) 
Thom Tillis (R): 44% (-1)

There have now been three polls of varying quality since Cunningham admitted to an extramarital affair with a California strategist. Each poll has found Cunningham actually gaining slightly in his race against Tillis, who tested positive for the coronavirus in the same 24-hour period that a conservative website published texts between Cunningham and his mistress. The Democrat’s favorable numbers have fallen from 34-22 positive/negative to 25-33 positive/negative. But Tillis isn’t popular either, and though 80 percent of voters are aware of Cunningham’s scandal, few say it’s a voting issue.

Candidate tracker

President Trump‘s rally schedule has resumed, with at least one event a day for the rest of the week; Johnstown, Pa. today; Des Moines tomorrow; and Greenville, N.C. on Thursday. He kicked off the series on Monday in Sanford, Fla., by dashing any Republican notions that he might focus on the Supreme Court fight or one of his campaign’s central messages. The speech made news when Trump suggested his post-covid-19 antibodies were so strong, he could help cure it.

“I feel so powerful,” Trump said. “I’ll walk in there and kiss everyone in the audience. I’ll kiss the guys. I’ll kiss the beautiful women.”

Joe Biden stumped in Ohio on Monday, giving his clearest answer to a question he been getting incessantly: Would he want to expand the size of the Supreme Court?

“I’m not a fan of court-packing,” Biden told WKRC TV in Cincinnati. “But I don’t want to get off on that whole issue.” As in other interviews, Biden turned the topic back to the Amy Coney Barrett nomination and his argument for delaying it until after the election and the next presidential inauguration.

Kamala Harris remained in Washington for the Barrett hearings; Mike Pence campaigned Tuesday in Waukesha, Wis., and will head to Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday and Miami on Thursday.

Third Party watch

Kanye West is still running for president. After early August, when West published a 10-point platform on his website, the rapper/producer/shoe designer had said next to nothing about his campaign. Democrats raised alarms about the Republican operatives working to get him ballot access; judges in several swing states, including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin struck his name before ballots were printed.

But West returned this week, releasing an 82-second online campaign ad which, as The Post’s Gene Park pointed out, uses not West’s music but something that at least sounds like a theme from the documentary “Planet Earth II.” In it, West gazes off-camera in front of an American flag colored in black and white. “We as a people will revive our nation’s commitment to faith, what our Constitution calls the free exercise of religion,” West says. “Including, of course, prayer. Through prayer, faith can be restored.”

The text itself isn’t memorable, but the kicker is: “Write in Kanye West.” Having missed the ballot line in 38 states and the District of Columbia, West won’t be an option for most voters, but nearly every state allows voters to write in candidates if they don’t vote for another candidate on that ballot line. Some states don’t count those votes, but that’s immaterial to West’s pitch: If you like him, write his name.

The ad comes after an even stranger development in this sideshow: The decision of California’s fringe American Independent Party to put West on the ballot as its nominee for vice president, as the running mate of perennial candidate Rocky de la Fuente. A San Diego businessman who has turned running ineffectively for office into a hobby, de la Fuente’s best shot at winning votes was with a celebrity on his “ticket.” But over the weekend, West tweeted that his fans should write his name in, not fill in the AIP line.

Countdown

… nine days until the second (formerly third) presidential debate 
… 21 days until the general election 
… 62 days until the electoral college votes
… 99 days until the inauguration

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