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GOP Dominance Likely to Continue at the State Level

Political attention this year will largely be focused on the presidential race, but at the start of a redistricting cycle both parties are pledging to spend record amounts on state elections.

Virginia House of Delegates in March 2014
David Kidd
The Republican Party has dominated state-level politics for the past decade. That's unlikely to change in any dramatic fashion this year.

Democrats added to their numbers among both governors and legislatures in 2018 and 2019, but it's possible they've already plucked most of the low-hanging fruit. Even Democratic strategists admit that their target lists aren't terribly long this year.

There are only 11 races for governor in 2020. Most of those aren't going to be competitive in November. Meanwhile, some 5,000 legislative seats will be in play, but it's more likely that existing Democratic and Republican majorities are going to grow, as opposed to partisan control of many chambers switching hands. "My sense is there's not a lot of potential for there to be huge changes, in terms of legislative competition," said Kyle Kondik, who edits a political newsletter at the University of Virginia.

The GOP made historic gains in 2010 — the last election year before a redistricting cycle — and the party added to its totals in 2014. Democrats regained some ground in 2018, winning seven governorships and the same number of legislative chambers. With control of the redistricting process at stake this year in many states, Democrats aren't going to be caught napping again at the state level. As recently as November, Democrats knocked off a GOP governor in Kentucky and took control of both chambers in Virginia.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has bulked up its staff and fundraising efforts, while a number of other groups have sprung up during the Trump presidency with the goal of electing more Democratic legislators. Those groups include the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and supported by former President Barack Obama.

"We need to focus on state races," said David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "We took our eye off the ball in 2010, and we're still paying consequences for it as a party right now."

But legislative majorities have grown larger over the past decade, leaving the out party with fewer opportunities. Historically, an average of 12 chambers have flipped every cycle. In 2018, however, only seven changed hands, while only six switched in 2016.

Republicans control the legislature in every state that Donald Trump carried in 2016, while Democrats have the legislature in every state where Hillary Clinton won, except for the Minnesota Senate (which wasn't up for grabs in 2018).

Currently, Republicans have 26 governorships to the Democrats' 24. The GOP controls the legislature in 30 states (with an asterisk on the Alaska House, which has a GOP majority but where a Democratic-led coalition is in charge), compared to 19 legislatures for the Democrats.

Neither of those numbers is likely to shift markedly in 2020.

The Year's Most Expensive Race

Both parties agree that the year's marquee race for governor will take place in North Carolina. Democrat Roy Cooper is seeking a second term. He's likely to face Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, but Forest still must outlast state Rep. Holly Grange for the GOP nomination. "That is going to be a big one for us," said Turner, the DGA spokesman. "It's probably going to be the most expensive state in the country."

Cooper unseated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory four years ago, but has had to deal with GOP majorities in the legislature ever since. The legislature moved to strip the governor of certain powers immediately after Cooper's election, which triggered long legal battles between the branches.

More recently, Cooper and GOP legislators have been at odds over the budget. Cooper vetoed last year's budget, demanding that the package include an expansion of Medicaid. The legislature has been unable to override him, leaving the state without a budget.

Republicans hope that Cooper will pay a political price for vetoing spending for popular priorities such as a teacher-pay increase. "There's been gridlock since Day One," said Amelia Chassé Alcivar, communications director for the Republican Governors Association. "People are looking for state government and politicians to get things done. Roy Cooper ran as a moderate, but has been the opposite as governor."

The race will be heated, but Cooper still commands some loyalty from blue-dog Democrats who vote Republican for other offices. In 2016, North Carolina split its vote between Trump and Cooper. This year, a lot of attention will also go to a competitive race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Thom Tillis.

Democrats are hoping that even if their presidential nominee loses the state, Cooper can again come out on top. "If he were to lose, that would just be part of a bad night for Democrats," said Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

The Trump Factor

The state most likely to flip this year is Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock is term-limited. Democrats have held the governorship for 16 years despite the state's Republican voting habits at other levels, including Trump's 20-point victory margin over Clinton in 2016. "Since this has been a solidly red state for quite some time at the federal level, we see this as a great opportunity," said Chassé Alcivar.

Democrats are certainly not conceding. Bullock has endorsed Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who is running in the June 2 primary against state House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner and consultant Whitney Williams. The daughter of a former congressman, Williams has proven to be a strong fundraiser.

On the Republican side, Congressman Greg Gianforte has been leading in polls against state Attorney General Tim Fox. Despite its red leanings, Democrats think they have a good shot at holding the seat, especially if Gianforte is the nominee, since he narrowly won re-election to the U.S. House two years ago.

Even in these polarized times, citizens have been willing to split their votes when it comes to governor. A total of 13 governors face legislatures that are divided or held by the other party. In November, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated GOP Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky, an otherwise bright-red state, while Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards won re-election in Louisiana.

Republicans believe two of their governors have inoculated themselves against their party's general unpopularity in a pair of blue states. Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire both enjoy approval ratings that are among the highest in the country. Both won re-election by comfortable margins in 2018. (New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states where governors serve two-year terms.)

But Democrats believe the dynamics will be different in a presidential year. Scott has not yet formally announced whether he'll run again. And strategists in both parties believe that New Hampshire will be more competitive this year than it was in 2018.

Democrats have recruited solid challengers in both states. Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman announced his candidacy on Jan. 13, joining Rebecca Holcombe, a former state education secretary, in the race.

In New Hampshire, the Democratic field includes state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Andru Volinsky, a member of the state's executive council. "Sununu really has governed more as a partisan," Turner said. "He's more vulnerable than people, at least in D.C., seem to think."

Vermont will hold its primary in August, while New Hampshire's primary isn't until September. That will give the eventual Democratic nominees little time to bind wounds following their nomination battles or raise money for the November election.

Missouri is another state where the presidential vote could be decisive. Trump carried the state by 19 points in 2016. If his margin is that large again, there's little chance that Democrats can unseat Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

But Trump's approval ratings have come down in Missouri since his election. Heading into the 2016 election, Democrats held four of the six statewide constitutional offices. Now, state Auditor Nicole Galloway is the only one left. This year, she's challenging Parson.

Democrats consider Galloway one of their top recruits of the cycle. Parson remains relatively little-known, having risen to the office in 2018 with the resignation of Eric Greitens amid scandal. "I still expect Parson to win because he has most of the advantages of incumbency, and he is running in a state that has suddenly turned rather red," said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

There's not expected to be much competition in the other states. Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's approval ratings have ticked down — not uncommon back home following a presidential run — and a third term is often a tough sell, but he remains the favorite.

Other incumbents including Democrat John Carney of Delaware and Republicans Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Doug Burgum of North Dakota are all considered safe. West Virginia GOP Gov. Jim Justice faces a serious primary challenge. But in that state, as in Utah, where Gary Herbert is stepping down after more than a decade in office, the eventual GOP nominee will be a good bet in November.

Competition at the Legislative Level

Democrats and allied groups spent some $65 million on Virginia legislative races last year, more than double their total in 2015. "If you look at what they spent in Virginia in 2019, we think it's a harbinger of what they'll spend in other states this cycle," said David Abrams, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. "We're sounding the alarm for what Democrats are doing, the unbelievable resources that Democrats are putting in, after paying no attention in 2010."

Democrats made major inroads in the Virginia House in 2017, falling a seat short before taking over last fall. Nationally, Democrats look to Virginia as a model, aiming to erode GOP majorities in one cycle and claim victory in the next. "What happened in Virginia didn't happen overnight," said Gaby Goldstein, political director for Sister District Project, which helps to elect Democrats at the legislative level. "We need as a movement to have a multiple-cycle strategy."

But Virginia may be unique. Democrats were aided by a new court-ordered district map. Other states may not present as many opportunities. Instead, the party is likely to lose yet more rural seats, particularly in the South. In Kentucky, a quarter of the remaining House Democrats are retiring, and the party fielded only 36 candidates to run in the 61 GOP-held seats. "It seems like the Republicans are slated to make some state legislative gains where they have the majority already," said Kondik, the University of Virginia political analyst.

In 2018, Democrats scored a net gain of 325 seats at the legislative level. Far from a "blue wave," that total was actually well below the average of 425 seats historically lost by the president's party during a midterm.

Most of the Democratic gains came in suburbs. The party won suburban seats outside of Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle and other cities. But the Democrats have now picked up most of the formerly Republican districts that had supported Clinton in 2016. Well under 10 percent of all legislative seats nationwide are held by the party that lost the presidential vote within that district.

That leaves relatively few targets available to either party.

"We had such a great 2010 cycle and have won so much over the last decade, we are victims of our own success," said Abrams, the RSLC spokesman. "We've got some defending to do, but we've done it over the last several cycles and will continue to do it in 2020."

Democrats certainly hope to pick up the two seats they'd need to win control of the Minnesota Senate. They also have their eyes on at least one chamber in states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. "The target list isn't as long this year, but it definitely lets the Democrats go on offense in states like North Carolina and Texas," said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for Daily Kos, which raises money for Democratic candidates.

In Texas, Democrats are hoping a win in a Jan. 28 special election will cut the number of seats they need to take control of the state House down to eight. They picked up a dozen seats in 2018. That year, Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, carried roughly that number of House seats that are still held by the GOP in his losing campaign against Ted Cruz.

But even victory in the upcoming special election is far from assured. Democrats racked up dozens of wins in special elections between 2016 and 2018, signaling the party's growing strength heading into the midterms. This cycle, they haven't enjoyed the same sort of momentum.

"We're not scared at all," said Abrams. "It's a new concept, for Democrats to spend in states. It doesn't make us any less effective as a party on the Republican side."

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