Democrats' focus on the White House may be crowding out the state house — and it might cost them big

Image: Voters Go To The Polls In Illinois Presidential Primary
A focus on state capitals has been difficult to maintain in an era when Washington is demanding so much attention. Copyright Scott Olson Getty Images file
By Alex Seitz-Wald with NBC News Politics
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The party has long been hobbled by a tendency to focus on the federal government while Republicans made major investments in the states. This cycle, some party leaders are sounding the alarm.


WASHINGTON — The political map will be set for the next decade in the 2020 elections, but the outcome of the biggest race on the ballot — the one grabbing most of the Democratic Party's attention and donor dollars — will have no effect on where the lines are drawn.

That mismatch has some party leaders worried Democrats will once again miss the boat.

"I'm definitely sounding the alarm," former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in an interview with NBC News.

State legislative races rarely ignite activists' passions or open donors' wallets. But with redistricting done every 10 years after the census, whoever wins states in 2020 will get to draw the maps in 2021 that will determine the playing field for congressional and state legislative elections through 2032 — not to mention make the laws that will affect millions.

"The Republicans get it," he added. "Democrats need to focus on the states in that same way."

The GOP wave in 2010 allowed Republicans to gerrymander maps so well that they can now win even when they lose. In the crucial state of Wisconsin, for instance, Republicans won almost two-thirds of State Assembly seats last year even though they got 190,000 fewer votes.

The Supreme Court will not come to the rescue, after deciding to allow partisan gerrymandering, so Democrats have to help themselves by winning.

Democrats have been hobbled by a tendency to focus on the federal government while Republicans made major investments in the states.

The party has not held a single legislative chamber in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio or North Carolina this decade — all swing states that should, given the registration breakdowns, be competitive.

That seemed to change after President Donald Trump's election as new liberal groups sprung up and established ones expanded as the party woke up to the fact that it lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats under Barack Obama.

But the focus on state capitals is difficult to maintain in an era when Washington is demanding so much attention.

"Most Americans don't get push news alerts on their phone when something outrageous happens in their state legislature," said Ben Wikler, a former top official who was recently elected chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Now, Democrats say their infrastructure for state races is better than its been in years. But they worry the party's energy and money is already getting sucked into the 2020 presidential race.

"The presidential is the brightest, shiniest prize out there. It's hard to compete with that," said Lala Wu, who in the wake of Trump's election left her job at a major law firm to co-found Sister District, which focuses on state races.

"We're definitely seeing the fruits of many peoples' efforts to raise the profile of states and how important they are. But now that the presidential is coming, there are some donors who tell us that their number one priority is 2020 and that's the only thing that matters to them," Wu said. "We think that's a bit short-sighted. A president is elected for four years; redistricting is in place for 10."

Jessica Post, who was recently promoted to be president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party's official campaign arm, said her group has expanded dramatically since 2010 and had its best second-quarter fundraising ever.

But it's still smaller than other party committees or even some presidential campaigns and still has ground to make up with Republicans. "We're still behind in a lot of states," Post said.

No one is saying the presidential race is not important. But money goes a lot farther in a state race than it does in national ones, since winning takes only thousands of votes instead of millions.


"Winning requires resources and Democratic donors need to take their eyes off the presidential for long enough to pay attention to this," said Vicky Hausman of Forward Majority, a new group that aims to take a "moneyball" approach to finding under-the-radar state legislative races. "The Democratic money simply isn't showing up."

The group spent $10 million on 130 races in 2018 and is now focused on a handful of states whos new maps, Hausman argued, "will determine the balance of power in the Congress for the next decade."

And Dan Squadron, a former New York state senator who now runs Future Now Fund, another new group, said it's not just about redistricting.

"Fixing the maps, won't fix the water that comes out of peoples' taps in Flint — fixing the state the legislature will," Squadron said of the water crisis in the Michigan city.

From new gun control measures to strict new anti-abortion laws, both sides have turned to the states to advance their agenda as Washington gridlocks.


"The illusion that the president can solve all of our country's problems is a very dangerous one," said Squadron. "In the last quarter, the Democratic presidential candidates raised enough money to fully fund more than a dozen state legislative campaigns that would have a lasting impact. The maximum number of candidates who can have a lasting impact is one (whoever wins)."

Democrats will get their first big test in four months in Virginia, when they'll have a chance to flip both chambers of the legislature if they can win just two seats each in the State House and Senate in the off-year election.

That would give Democrats complete control of the state and allow them to do things like pass new gun laws, which the GOP majorityrejected last month in a special session that lasted less than two hours.

Next year, they have their eyes on states where they could give Democratic governors a friendly legislature work with and others still where they could break GOP supermajorities that exclude Democrats entirely,

Dave Daley, the author of two books on gerrymandering, said that while Democrats have gotten better at taking states seriously, things will only get harder for them if they miss their chance in 2020.


"The partisans in charge of mapmaking in 2021 won't have to worry about the Supreme Court. The technology that they use to draw maps will be a decade more advanced," said Daley. "And they'll have learned from the mistakes of this decade about keeping their intent secret and crafting maps that look like their fair but actually deliver reliable results every time."

"Democrats have one chance to win back seats at the table in some our most competitive states in the nation," he added. "And if they're not able to do so in 2020, it's easy to see how the decade was lost in the same way that the last one was."

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