How the coronavirus crisis is upending the battle for state legislatures and will reshape who controls the US Congress

How the coronavirus crisis is upending the battle for state legislatures and will reshape who controls the US Congress

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo wearing gloves, a King County Election worker collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary, in Seattle. But the 2020 presidential election is creeping ever closer, and there are no signs yet of pandemic abating, nor any word on when Americans on orders to stay home can resume normal life, and so lawmakers are trying to figure how to allow for voting in a world where face-to-face contact causes anxiety at the least, and sickness and death at the most. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

  • In addition to the presidential election, 33 US Senate races, and hundreds of House seats, control of 86 state legislative chambers and thousands of seats in 43 states will be on the ballot in 2020.
  • The coronavirus crisis has completely upended state legislative campaigns in a crucial election year before redistricting, over half a dozen strategists and activists told Insider.
  • With such high stakes, candidates and organizations alike are coming up with creative solutions to win races despite seeing their fundraising decline and not being able to campaign or hold in-person events.
  • "We know that times are hard, but we also know that we have to keep investing in politics because politics was how we got into this mess. And it's what will save us ultimately," one progressive strategist told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In addition to the presidential election, 33 US Senate races, and hundreds of House seats, control of 86 state legislative chambers and thousands of seats in 43 states will be on the ballot in 2020.

The novel coronavirus outbreak has thrown a wrench into traditional political campaigning, with presidential and congressional campaigns alike scrambling to bring their operations completely virtual overnight in a crucial election year.

The crisis will have especially profound implications for the thousands of state legislative races taking place across the country this fall.

And the results will have lasting effects on everything from the public policy shaping people's lives, to redistricting after the 2020 census, according to interviews with over half a dozen political strategists and activists working on state legislative races this election cycle.


"The coronavirus has impacted every industry, company, family in this country, and political organizations and campaigns are no different," Austin Chambers, executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told Insider. "And if you don't adapt to it, you're going to fail."

State legislatures don't receive nearly as much national attention and media coverage as Congress. Still, the vast majority of most US policymaking takes place in state legislative chambers, which have come under a renewed spotlight in the current pandemic.

A study from the legislative analysis group Quorum found that in 2016, state legislatures both introduced 23 times as many bills as the US Congress and passed a higher proportion of the legislation proposed. A full 19.3% of state Senate bills and 13.3% of state House bills were approved and signed into law on average in 2016, compared to just 3.6% of US Senate bills and 1.3% of US House bills.

And this year, state legislative bodies will tackle not only the response and recovery to the coronavirus crisis but drawing new congressional and state legislative districts based on the results of the 2020 census, which will determine who controls power and how resources are allocated.

"State legislatures are the laboratories of democracy," Lala Wu, co-founder of the Sister District Project, told Insider. "You can either see great or horrible policy that impacts people from this level, and it's so often under-spotlighted and overlooked."


Texas State Capitol flags

Democrats are aiming to make a massive comeback at the state level

For decades, Republicans outmatched and outgunned Democrats at the state legislative level with a well-funded organizing and policy juggernaut, gaining the upper hand on both economic and social issues for years to come at the state level.

In the "Red Wave" relations of 2010, Republicans picked up 675 total state legislature seats and flipped control of 15 state houses and six state Senate chambers, the most state legislative representation the GOP had seen since 1928.

While Democrats have won back over 400 state legislative seats, over half a dozen state legislative chambers, and nine governorships since the 2016 election, Republicans still dominate state politics. As of 2020, Republicans control 52% of state legislative seats and 60% of state legislative chambers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When it comes to the disproportionate investment in state legislatures, "there's a structural difference going back 40 years that reflects the Republicans' donor base," Daniel Squadron, a former New York State Senator and founder of Future Now, told Insider. "For them, there is a short-term profit motive and long-time ideological payback on focusing on state legislatures."


This year, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is working alongside a score of other progressive, grassroots organizations created in the wake of the 2016 election focused on raising and spending money to help Democrats win back state legislatures and other down-ballot offices. They include Forward Majority, the Sister District Project, SwingLeft and Flippable, Run For Something, and the Future Now Fund, which both raises money for candidates and crafts state policy and model legislation.

Gaby Goldstein, Wu's co-founder and political director of Sister District, acknowledged to Insider that Democrats have been "tardy to the party" for decades when it comes to investing in state legislatures, but are beginning to turn the tide in their favor.

After the 2016 election, both Goldstein and Wu walked away from successful careers practicing law to work on the Sister District Project, which solely works on winning competitive state legislative races, full-time.

And for the first time years, the DLCC even slightly outraised its counterpart organization in 2020's first quarter, bringing in $6.4 million compared to the RSLC's $6 million.

"We're giving our candidates the resources to keep campaigning through digital organizing strategies like peer to peer texting or virtual phone banks," Jessica Post, the DLCC's executive director, told Insider. "We're going to continue to take this day by day, but so far, we've seen our fundraising remain strong, even outraising our Republican counterparts."


Many of the aforementioned groups told Insider they are aiming to flip control of both chambers of the North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arizona state legislatures, all of which will be competitive battleground states in the electoral college and are holding important US Senate and other statewide races.

Progressive groups are also targeting the Minnesota State Senate, the Texas State House, and Michigan State House as other chambers to flip, in addition to holding onto their control of the Colorado legislature and making inroads in the powerful Florida, Georgia, and Wisconsin legislatures.

"If anyone doubted the power of states, all they need to do is look at the fact that state leadership is saving lives and costing lives, saving the economy and devastating the economy across the country," Squadron said. "As federal leadership falls down, states are there to pick up the pieces."

Alaska legislature

'It's a really challenging environment'

Many of the strategists interviewed by Insider said they're still seeing consistent enthusiasm and engagement from their volunteers and candidates they support. But with more people out of work, donors' budgets are tightening, and both individuals campaigns and big organizations alike are unable to hold fundraising events that bring in substantial amounts of money.

"It's been really hard, since in-person events made up 20 to 25% of our budget," Amanda Litman, the co-founder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruits young progressives to run for office, told Insider. "So this has really cut a big hole for us. We have been trying a whole bunch of different things, but we think we have to think big, throw strategies at the wall, and see what sticks."


Unlike serving in the US Congress, being a state legislator is a part-time and often low-paying job in most states. Now, incumbents and challenger candidates alike are struggling to run their campaigns remotely overnight while balancing other work, a possible loss of income, and family responsibilities in some cases.

"As a former state senator, the idea of needing to run a campaign from my living room creates a pit in my stomach, and we're seeing candidates deal with this across the country," Squadron said. "How do you introduce yourself to voters and make a case for yourself when you can't leave the house?"

Squadron told Insider that for insurgent challengers going up against entrenched and well-funded incumbents, knocking on thousands of doors, meeting voters, and being present in the community is the most effective way to make up the resource gap.

But with all those options off the table, candidates are forced to make do with less while moving their entire options digital as fundraising plummets across the board.

And candidates in the dozens of states that have postponed their primary elections by weeks or even months have to contend with the double whammy of losing funds and having campaigns extended for months.


"If someone's going to donate less its one area, its state legislative races, which are taking the biggest hit," Catharine Vaughn, the chief operating officer of SwingLeft, told Insider. "In a House race, your dollar is more likely to go towards a TV or digital ad, whereas at the state legislative level, your dollar will go towards far more critical things like paying field organizers."

Ryan Quinn, SwingLeft's political director, added that most state legislative campaigns have budgets that are around $150,000 compared to the $2 million for a House of Representatives campaign.

"One of the challenges in a moment like this is that state legislative races operate in a smaller universe, and their tactics involve more in-person organizing, including knocking on doors and hiring field staffers," Quinn said.

And candidates with postponed primaries are now faced with not only figuring out how to stretch out their limited resources further but are delayed in pivoting to the general election and raising money as the nominee.

"The current environment certainly advantages incumbents who don't need to fight for name recognition and who don't need to cut through the noise in the same way," Goldstein told Insider. "So for Democrats who are trying to take this last chance opportunity to change the composition of state legislatures before redistricting, this is a really challenging environment."


Strategists told Insider that despite the tremendous challenges they face, the state legislative candidates they work with are coming up with creative solutions to engage with voters and emphasize the importance of the behind-the-scenes work state legislators do.

"This pandemic has thrown into stark relief the importance of local and state leaders," said Wu of SisterDistrict. "These state legislators are the gatekeepers and the architects of emergency relief for their communities. When this is all over, we'll be able to look back and view how differently the outcomes were in states with stronger leadership and leadership that was not able to meet the moment."

In addition to holding virtual fundraisers, town halls, and phone banks, state legislative candidates are moving away from traditional politicking in some cases and using their campaign infrastructures to be trusted sources of information in their communities.

"Smart Democratic candidates are shifting the messaging and focus of their campaign towards being a resource to the community," Goldstein said. "Whether it's tweeting out information about how to donate to your food bank or give blood, sharing information about ways to help nurses in the district, or about press conferences that the governor is doing, it's much more of an opportunity to be a trusted information conduit to the community."

Litman told Insider that strategy is paying off for state legislative contenders, saying, "we have candidates telling us they're hearing from their community members and voters, 'you're the one whose Facebook page I look at to see where's what's open in my neighborhood,' 'you're the one who tweets out where we can get unemployment insurance,' because they don't trust the federal government right now."


And as congressional candidates adjust to the initial shock of the pandemic coming off the sidelines to resume raising money and running attack ads against their opponents, operatives working on state legislative races aren't holding back from taking targeted shots at their rivals either.

"Democrats are working to pass emergency paid sick leave, invest in programs to help those who lose their jobs, and have even used their capacity to raise money for food banks in their communities," said Post of the DLCC. "In stark contrast, Republicans are ramping up efforts to take away access to health care, making people choose between their right to vote and their health, and seem more concerned with falling in line with Trump than saving lives."

But Chambers isn't phased by the Democrats' rise in fundraising and enthusiasm, noting that Republicans have won several state legislative special elections that received national attention and millions in outside spending.

"Money's never been the Democrats' problem, they got 99 other problems, but certainly, money's not one. Their main problem is message; they have a horrible message, they've got bad policies, and they're out of touch with the American people," Chambers charged.

On the Republican side, Chambers also said that this crisis, in particular, gives incumbent legislators a unique opportunity to earn re-election just by doing their jobs well.


"We've done everything we can to make sure that our members and our elected officials across the country don't have to worry about fundraising," Chambers told Insider. "They have to worry about doing a good job in their position, protecting their neighbors, families, communities, and battling through this virus. If they do a good job, they're going to be reelected."

While Democrats are optimistic about the level of grassroots energy going into down-ballot races, Republicans are coming into this election from the defensive with the incumbent advantage in most legislative chambers, and aren't leaving seats on the table.

FILE- In this Feb. 2, 2019, file photo former Virginia Governor and U.S. Sen. George Allen, right, talks with supporters during a stop in Bristol, Va. Allen was on a five-city town hall tour of Virginia to discuss the need for nonpartisan and transparent redistricting reform during this year's General Assembly session. In Vermont, a commission submits plans for state House and Senate districts to the state Legislature, which can approve or change them. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP, File)

The crisis could have lasting implications for redistricting

For Democrats, poor performance in this year's legislative elections could also put them at a disadvantage in the post-2020 census redistricting for the second time in a row and set them back even further.

Republicans sweeping state legislatures a decade ago gave them the upper hand in redistricting after the 2010 census to draw district maps to their advantage in dozens of states, shaping the outcomes of crucial elections and the balance of power for years to come.


It also kicked off a national conversation and a slew of organizations dedicated to combatting gerrymandering after Republican legislators were widely criticized and rebuked by courts in many cases for drawing unfair district lines to benefit their own electoral prospects.

This year, the stakes couldn't be higher for both parties.

"We're going to have the resources and the funding necessary to make sure that we're successful in our key states across the country, and defend the legislative majorities that matter most, because a decade of power in Washington and a decade of power in the states is riding on it," Chambers said. "This is too important to say a virus caught us off guard and slowed us down."

Progressive leaders are also focused on how redistricting hinges on the upcoming election.

"Gerrymandering is a huge problem in this country, and redistricting is coming up in 2021. So this year in 2020 is our last chance to elect Democrats and good leaders who are going to reach all the district lines next year, both for state legislative and congressional districts," Wu said.


An analysis of 2019 census data from the firm Election Data Services found that Texas and Florida are projected to gain two seats each, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona are set to gain one each, and Montana's current at-large district could be broken up into two districts.

States including New York, California, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota are projected, however, to lose congressional seats due to declining population.

State legislatures primarily control and conduct redistricting for congressional and state legislative seats in the vast majority of states, with just eight states entirely relying on independent redistricting commissions to draw new district boundaries.

And some of the legislatures and chambers Democrats need just a few seats to flip, like North Carolina and Texas, are trending towards being more competitive for Democrats statewide and are among the states set to gain more congressional seats after 2020.

"Redistricting is an essential piece of our state legislative engagement," said Quinn of SwingLeft. "And particularly in states with demonstrated attempts to commit partisan or racial gerrymandering, we've seen Republicans using their power to draw themselves into the majority."


While the barriers to overcoming decades of Republican dominance in state politics are even starker in the coronavirus crisis, Democrats are more motivated than ever to win back the balance of power in some of the nation's most overlooked but incredibly powerful lawmaking bodies.

"We know that times are hard, but we also know that we have to keep investing in politics because politics was how we got into this mess. And it's what will save us ultimately," Litman said. "I am optimistic about it because I have to be, and because I believe that this crisis has shown that this work matters now more than ever."

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