State battles are hot; election isn't just about White House

Staff Writer
Stephenville Empire-Tribune

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — After years of losses left them at historic lows in state legislatures, Democrats this year are seeking to wrest control of as many as a dozen chambers from Republicans.

That would be a first step in the Democrats' longer-term goal of rebuilding political strength that will be critical in the next round of congressional and state legislative redistricting in five years.

The battle for statehouse control is playing out in more than half the states with tens of millions of dollars of planned political spending before the Nov. 8 general election. Democrats are hoping the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump's presidential campaign can boost their fortunes in down-ballot races, although Hillary Clinton remains unpopular in many Republican-leaning regions.

"When you go district by district, when you look at where all these races are, we're in a highly competitive environment," said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

"A volatile environment" is how it's described by his counterpart Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The two groups say they are on pace to meet their record fundraising goals for the 2016 election. Big money also has been flowing to legislative races from ideological groups, unions, business associations and wealthy individuals.

With gridlock in Washington, states increasingly are where policies are adopted on major issues such as gun rights, marijuana use, minimum wages and the regulation of businesses in the new economy, such as ride-sharing services and online fantasy sports.

Also at stake is redistricting control. The party that controls legislatures and governorships during the 2020 Census will have the upper hand in redrawing congressional and state legislative districts in those states. Controlling those boundaries can ensure a political advantage for the next decade.

Republicans now control 69 of the 99 state legislative chambers — their most ever. (Nebraska is the only state with just a single legislative chamber.)

That advantage also means more seats to defend.

Legislative elections are being held this year for nearly 6,000 seats in 44 states. National Democratic and Republican groups are particularly focused on 27 of those states where they hope to either flip control of a chamber or cut into the opposing party's majority with an eye toward greater gains in the future.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee says it expects to win control of between eight and 12 new chambers and has highlighted 52 "essential races," including many in presidential battleground states.

The GOP's Walter acknowledges Republicans may see a slight overall decline, but he says they still could win several new chambers, including the Kentucky House, the lone Democratic-led chamber in the Southeast. The Republican State Leadership Committee has been running TV ads portraying Democratic Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo as a Clinton ally intent on putting coal miners out of work.

At the top of the target list for Democrats is the Michigan House, where dozens of Republicans elected in the wave of 2010 are now barred by term limits from seeking re-election. Adding to Democratic hopes: Clinton is ahead in the polls there, and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's popularity has tanked following his administration's handling of the lead-tainted water in Flint. Democrats must gain nine seats to reclaim the chamber, meaning they likely need victories in some blue-collar districts where Trump figures to fare better.

Several states with split-party control in their legislatures are being targeted by both parties, including Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington.

Republicans currently hold a precarious single-seat advantage over Democrats in the Colorado Senate, while Democrats hold just a three-seat lead in the House. One of the most pivotal races is in Denver's western suburbs, where Republican Sen. Laura Woods faces a rematch against Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, who held the seat in 2014.

After the recent release of a 2005 recording in which Trump boasts of predatory sexual advances toward women, Woods says a Democratic-backed political group targeted her in automated phone calls linking her to Trump. Woods, a self-described Christian conservative, says she has forgiven Trump for the comments and will not abandon him.

"I think if Donald Trump wins my district, I'm likely to," Wood said. "And if Hillary Clinton wins my district, my opponent is likely to win."

Former Attorney General Eric Holder was announced Monday as chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a newly created alliance of Democratic leaders, unions and progressive groups with a goal of boosting Democrats' chances in time for the 2021 redistricting.

"I think there has been an awakening that the way to change policy outcomes in the states, the way to change the balance in Congress ... is to win in the states," said Mark Schauer, a former Michigan congressman and gubernatorial candidate who is a senior adviser to the new group.

Republicans made big gains in state capitols in 2010, just in time for the last round of redistricting. During the 2012 elections, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives actually received about 1.4 million more votes than their Republican opponents, yet the GOP won a 33-seat House majority, partly because Republican-dominated state legislatures had drawn districts to their favor. Republicans made even more gains in 2014.