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State Lawmakers Face Most Challengers in Decades

Recent election cycles have seen more than 40 percent of state legislative seats left uncontested. Not this year.

dems and reps
Graig Meyer, who serves in the North Carolina House, spent months recruiting fellow Democrats to run for legislative seats this year. He hoped to find a live body for every race, but admits he was skeptical it could happen. Back in 2016, 45 percent of the legislative seats in the state were uncontested by one party or the other.

But Meyer pulled it off. This year, there’s a Democrat running for every seat in the state House and the state Senate. On the Republican side, the recruiting effort fell just short of perfection, with a single House seat conceded to the Democrats.

In recent cycles, it’s been common around the country for more than 40 percent of seats to be left uncontested. This year is different. States where filing deadlines have passed have seen more Democratic candidates sign up than any time since at least 1982. “Thank you, Donald Trump,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women candidates.

There’s no question Democrats are fired up. Individuals who thought they might run someday recognize that 2018 is likely their best shot, Meyer says. And Democrats in districts where they know they have little chance of winning still want to run, to force Republican incumbents to expend at least a little effort and not devote their fundraising prowess to helping more marginal candidates. 

But it’s not just more Democrats running: The number of Republican candidates has also increased. They’ve been inspired by President Trump, too. In addition to traditional Republicans, the party is seeing new hopefuls emerge from its growing working-class wing. While Democrats are looking to make inroads in suburban areas, Republicans believe they can prevail in more blue-collar towns.

A portion of the GOP’s success in legislative elections this decade has resulted simply from taking most contests seriously. Republicans have long competed in more districts than Democrats. “They are doing what they’ve been doing, which is brilliant,” Steele says. “They know what Democrats are just catching up to, which is that you can’t win elections if you don’t have candidates.”

It seems like an obvious point. Democracy works best when voters have a real choice. But the parties have neglected to offer choices in many districts. Instead, they’ve concentrated their resources on the relatively few swing districts where control of the chamber seemed to be at stake. 

This year, both parties expect the playing field to be much wider. That’s all to the good. When incumbents go unchallenged, there’s no way to hold them accountable for misdeeds or incompetence. “Our system is better than that,” says Virginia Democratic state Rep. Cheryl Turpin, who last year decided to run in a district where the GOP incumbent had previously gone unchallenged. Turpin ended up taking the seat by 382 votes in November, becoming the only Democrat in the state to win a district Trump had carried in 2016. “Every candidate,” she says, “should be opposed.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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