With the 2018 midterms in the rearview, Democratic groups are already gearing up for 2020, with an eye on state-level races.
A bevy of state-level groups that formed in response to Donald Trump’s rise to power are sifting through the data to see where Democrats made huge inroads (Minnesota) and where they just couldn’t break through (Arizona).
Some pointed fingers at the institutional Democratic Party, saying a failure to adequately invest in state-level races led to less impressive results than the congressional races netted. But they told TPM that the “bright spots” of the 2018 cycle, combined with voter-approved ballot initiatives that will hugely expand the electorate in places like Florida and Michigan, provide a useful roadmap for where to focus their attention for the next two years.
Nicole Hobbs, co-founder of EveryDistrict, which focuses on electing Democrats to state-level office, told TPM that there was “a bit of an underperformance” in state legislative races that they’re working to rectify.
So far, Hobbs said, the group has determined that there was a five-point swing for Democrats on the state level compared to a nine-point swing on the congressional level.
EveryDistrict is now poring through the results to map out exactly how Democrats performed where, and waiting for final financial reports to come in to look at the money race.
Though Tuesday’s results may have fallen short of optimistic expectations, they were nothing to sneer at. Democrats flipped more than 350 seats nationwide and seized control of seven legislative chambers. They gained six new trifectas, meaning Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature. Democrats also picked up seven new governorships and now hold a majority of the nation’s attorney general offices.
Democratic groups say those gains have to be seen collectively, even if they fell short of the 600 flipped seats that were floated as a possibility if a true blue wave or tsunami had taken place.
“My frustration with us as Democrats is we’re focused on the immediate, the here and the now,” Kelly Dietrich, head of the National Democratic Training Committee, told TPM. “We lost almost 1,000 seats over the 10 years since Obama took office. This week we won back 360-some of them—more than a third—in one election. You don’t get everything back at once. You have to think long-term.”
For Dietrich’s group, which focuses on training Democratic hopefuls, that involves bolstering the infrastructure of local political parties, creating relationships with voters “that aren’t just transactional,” and providing free online and in-person training to candidates in all 50 states.
Dietrich, based in Illinois, pointed to county boards in suburban and rural parts of the state flipping blue after decades under Republican control as the kind of hyper-local focus required.
“That creates a bench for higher office in the future,” he said. “That kind of investment now pays off later down the road.”
Republicans still dominate Democrats at the state level. They hold 62 legislative chambers compared to 37 for Democrats, and 27 governorships, if current results hold.
On election night, the Republican State Leadership Committee released a statement dunking on Democrats’ “blue ripple.”
“Democrat net seat gains from the 2018 Election are a small fraction of what the RSLC’s RedMap program accomplished during the 2010 Election and well below any comparable wave measurement,” RSLC President Matt Walter said in a statement, referring to the GOP’s wildly successful program to run and fund state-level candidates in the 2010 midterms.
RedMap secured Republicans 21 chambers nationwide and flipped 724 seats in 2010.
But the second step of RedMap involved leveraging those statehouse majorities to draw district maps that locked in Republican control, making it more difficult for Democrats to retake seats even when they won a greater total of votes.
In at least some states, Tuesday’s wins will prevent that from happening during the next round of redistricting, which will follow the 2020 census. Thanks to gains in Illinois, Maine, Nevada and New Mexico, Democrats now fully control the state government—and map-drawing process— there. Democrats like Gov.-elect Laura Kelly will now have veto power over maps drawn by the GOP-controlled Kansas legislature.
Several other states also passed initiatives that will expand who is able to vote in the next election. Nevada voters approved automatic voter registration, while Michigan passed a sweeping voting rights referendum that combines automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. In Florida, 1.4 million residents with felony convictions had their voting rights restored.
That expanded pool of voters and the 2018 crop of elected Democratic officials will give Democrats an easier path come 2020, Democratic groups say. These incumbents will gain political experience and name recognition, freeing progressive groups up to focus attention on training and promoting a fresh set of candidates.
Early targets include Minnesota, which multiple Democratic strategists called a “bright spot” of the 2018 cycle and where only one state Senate seat is needed to flip control of the chamber. Others include the Pennsylvania state Senate, and the Florida and Arizona statehouses.
As EveryDistrict’s Hobbs put it, Tuesday was “a good night overall—a much better night for Democrats in state-level races than in previous years. But there’s definitely room for improvement.”
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