For at least four decades, going back to the devastating rise of Ronald Reagan, progressives have heard the same refrain every presidential campaign year: This is the most important election of our lives. In 2020, though, it’s true. Really.
Not just because it’s a chance to oust Donald Trump and undo the damage from 2016, says voting rights champion Stacey Abrams, who ran for Georgia governor in 2018. “2020 is also a redo and a redemption of the 2010 election,” she says fervently.
2010 was the year, Abrams explains, that Republicans, stunned by Barack Obama’s election in 2008, began their comeback. They didn’t ignore federal races, by any means, but they began pouring money and energy into flipping state legislative chambers, which had been dominated by Democrats for decades. They were astonishingly successful, not only in 2010 but throughout Obama’s two terms, eight sorry years in which Democrats lost 942 legislative seats. In 2009, Democrats controlled 27 state legislative assemblies and Republicans 14, with eight divided. (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.) By 2017, Republicans controlled 32 and Democrats 14, with three divided.
In those years, Democrats’ fortunes eroded at other levels: The party lost the US House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and stunningly, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 with an Electoral College win, though she captured the popular vote. Abrams and other Democrats connect many of those losses to the states Republicans won in 2010, where they gained control over redistricting. In many states they gerrymandered state and congressional districts to disadvantage Democrats and passed voting rights restrictions. Those moves made it harder for Democrats to win state and congressional races and, ultimately, the White House. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, three states that Clinton lost by a combined 77,000 votes and thus the Electoral College, saw Republicans gain state power and pass voting rights restrictions between 2010 and 2016.
The good news: In 2017 the resistance to Trump ran through state legislative races as Democrats won back 14 state seats in special elections, plus an astonishing 15 in Virginia that November (11 of them going to women, including five women of color). Learning the lessons of Virginia, a broad roster of national groups, some of them institutional and some the so-called resistance pop-ups—from a renewed Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) to Indivisible, from Emily’s List to Flippable, from former attorney general Eric Holder’s well-funded National Democratic Redistricting Committee to scrappy Sister District—put admirable muscle into statehouse races in 2018. The result: They turned 380 seats from red to blue that November, flipping chambers in six states.
In Colorado, New York, and Maine, Democrats took over Senate chambers. In Minnesota they grabbed the House, and in New Hampshire they turned both. They made huge strides elsewhere in eroding GOP power, switching 16 seats in North Carolina’s House and Senate, ending GOP supermajorities (which gave the legislature power to override the Democratic governor’s vetoes); 14 in Texas; and 19 in Pennsylvania.
In 2019, Virginia Democrats finished their job, taking the House and the Senate. With a Democratic governor, the state returned to full Democratic control for the first time in over two decades. Counting those Virginia victories, Democrats have won back over 450 seats and 10 state chambers in the Trump era.
Now those groups and some new ones are trying to change more chambers to blue, especially in states where the legislature controls redistricting. But they need to learn the lessons of why state Democrats slumped after 2008, failing to rise to the GOP challenge, and surged after 2016.
Chief among them: You can’t win if you don’t play. Democrats in many states had long failed even to field challengers to many Republican incumbents. That’s changed hugely since 2016. In this cycle, the DLCC has spent $6.2 million to recruit candidates. Democrats also need a diverse slate of challengers, especially to turn out the people least likely to vote but most likely to be Democrats: so-called low-propensity voters, mainly people of color and younger people (who obviously overlap). Then Democrats need to target those voters, as well as run on issues and urgency that match the moment.
State-level Democrats are doing fairly well on all three fronts. Covid-19 and the national uprising against police violence “have really made people understand the power of state legislators and governors,” says Catherine Vaughan, a cofounder of Flippable (now merged with Swing Left), formed in 2016 to focus on state races. Activists are also inspired by the sheer number of candidates running—including many women of color—who lost narrowly in 2018 and are running again.
“What’s great is that Democrats aren’t playing defense to hold any chamber they control, and they’ve fielded more state candidates than Republicans have,” says Daily Kos communications director Carolyn Fiddler, a veteran of state legislative politics. “So far, this looks like it could be the inverse of 2010.” On the other hand, the Covid pandemic has turned campaigning upside down, making field organizing all but impossible and fundraising tougher, too. “We’re all just figuring it out together,” says Amanda Litman, a cofounder of Run for Something, which recruits young Democrats to compete for state and local offices. “Anyone who tells you they know what will happen in the states this year is full of shit.”
The diverse roster of groups working in this space is spread across the country, but most share several top-priority states, where there’s a good chance to flip a chamber or where the legislature plays a role in redistricting decisions. Thus the four states that are seeing the most investment are North Carolina, where there’s a chance to shift the House and Senate; Arizona, where both chambers are likewise in play; and Texas and Michigan, whose Houses may be up for grabs. Fights are also underway to turn the Minnesota Senate, the Iowa and Ohio Houses, and both Pennsylvania chambers. Wisconsin and Georgia are getting attention, too.
And with a late, unexpected surge of first-time candidates, Florida has emerged as a fascinating laboratory for building Democratic infrastructure on the ground. Republicans hold a trifecta in state power—hapless Governor Ron DeSantis as well as both legislative houses—and they have botched the pandemic response beyond belief. Groups like Sister District, Forward Majority, and the DLCC are starting to spend money there to at least build a working Democratic Party in red areas, if not flip a chamber. “Running up the margins” in blue districts and preventing Republicans from doing so in red districts “can help Joe Biden win the state,” says Fergie Reid Jr. of 90 for 90, a group formed to honor his father, Fergie Reid Sr., who was elected in 1967 as Virginia’s first Black state legislator since Reconstruction, on his 90th birthday. (He’s now 95 and going strong.) It is one of the groups behind Virginia’s turnaround, by registering voters and recruiting Democratic challengers. Now it has helped inspire the late surge of Florida Democratic candidates.
For a lot of groups, North Carolina is the big prize. “This is a microcosm of Trumpism. It all started in North Carolina,” says Christine Bachman of Our States Matter, who is widely credited with focusing national activism on Virginia in 2017 and is mainly working with the Tarheel State this year. In 2010 wealthy right-wing North Carolina businessman Art Pope helped bankroll an assault on state Democrats, working with Republican strategist Karl Rove and the notorious GOP Redistricting Majority Project, along with Charles and David Koch. The team won Republican control of both chambers of the state’s General Assembly for the first time since 1870. “North Carolina was the original red state laboratory, where they created all their extremist legislation and then spread it everywhere,” Bachman laments.
Jessica Post, who now heads the DLCC, was a junior staffer with the organization in 2010. She saw what went down in North Carolina and elsewhere around the country that November. “In 2010 the [Democrats’] focus was on maintaining control of Congress. The feeling was that top-of-the-ticket turnout would trickle down,” she says. The opposite happened. “Karl Rove did this in plain sight.” Indeed, in March 2010 he announced in The Wall Street Journal, “Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats.” Post says, “We lost 21 chambers across the country that night. I remember crying on the sidewalk, saying I never want to feel this way again.”
But North Carolina’s Democratic Party leaders turned the tables in 2018, and Post and others say the state party has continued its rise this cycle, again recruiting candidates to run in every district, plus doubling fundraising since 2018, which was a good year. And several candidates who lost that year are stepping up to run again.
Educator Aimy Steele of Cabarrus County, just northeast of Charlotte, is one of them. An African American former principal who is married to a local pastor, she was driven to run in 2018 after the state legislature tried to lower class sizes from kindergarten to third grade not by increasing funding but by increasing class sizes in higher grades. She made a determined but underfunded challenge that year and came within 2,000 votes of winning. “I was devastated the night I lost, but the next day I said, ‘I’m not finished,’” she recalls.
She learned a lot from that first race—including that experts tend to want candidates to focus on people who vote routinely, even to try persuading wobbly Republicans, but to ignore low-propensity voters, who tend to be people of color. Steele defied them, targeting those voters and turning out thousands of them.
This time around, she has 12 new precincts, thanks to new and fairer North Carolina maps, which give her district more voters of color. That’s also more voters to introduce herself to, but she says, “I was principal of two schools in those precincts. People know me.” Being an educator is key to her appeal during a pandemic in which elected officials, teachers, and parents are uncertain and sometimes divided over opening schools. Steele understands the tension.
“As if teachers already didn’t have an enormous amount of responsibilities that they’re not compensated for. Now they need to be qualified to take temperatures, to ensure that kids are safely socially distancing themselves and also provide avenues to make sure all the kids who stay home are learning, in addition to the kids who are at school,” she says. Parents are worried, too. But she has found constituents turning to her in the crisis—parents asking for help finding tutors, teachers asking questions about their safety. She has a spreadsheet matching teachers who want work, often extra work, with parents losing patience with their unexpected homeschooling adventures. She makes these family-teacher connections almost every day.
Run for Something’s Litman sees a version of that all over the country. “Candidates are acting as advocates for voters during [the pandemic]. They’re doing wellness checks. They’re connecting,” she says.
The other thing Steele learned was the importance of advocating for herself and raising money. Even in 2018, when the North Carolina House Democratic caucus was comparatively aggressive about challenging Republicans, her district was written off as hopeless, yet she got 47 percent of the vote. She says, “As soon as I decided to run again, I connected with the caucus, and I let them know, ‘Listen, I take this very seriously. If you’re willing to make an investment in me, I’m willing to run hard and run strong.’ And they said, ‘It looks like the race is going to be better this cycle. So we will go ahead.’”
Bachman is optimistic. “What we know as the resistance today started out as Rev. [William] Barber II and Moral Mondays in North Carolina in 2011,” she says. “That was the blueprint.” After the state’s GOP leadership began passing a barrage of right-wing legislation, including strict new voter ID measures, Barber and other religious and progressive leaders began weekly protests in Raleigh and partnered on voter registration drives. The activism culminated in Barber’s nationwide Poor People’s Campaign this year.
This time around, Steele is unapologetic about targeting Black voters in a district that’s 23 percent African American. “I told my team, we need to talk to all Black voters in the district. Because they need the person who is running for a position of power, who could possibly represent them, to look like them,” she says. Talk of low-propensity voters frustrates her. “I could be one of those voters. I could fall into the low-propensity category, had someone not convinced me of how important voting was.”
On this score, Steele says, the pandemic hampers her a little. (A lot of other second-time candidates of color say the same thing.) “Door knocking is my superpower!” she says. Bachman notes that “the resistance was really built on human contact—field organizing, reaching voters in person, knocking on doors—which makes this cycle all the more challenging, given that Covid has stripped our candidates of those tools.” (Canvassing with volunteers also costs less than paid media campaign features.) “It’s just very sad,” Steele admits. “Last time, people told me, ‘Nobody ever knocks on our door.’ I’d say, ‘Hey, I will!’ We just had so much fun on the doors. It’s cramping my style.”
On the other hand, unlike many other states with Republican-controlled legislatures, North Carolina has a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who gets high marks for his handling of the pandemic. He is also on the ballot in November, which should boost Steele. “Our governor is favored highly with his handling of the coronavirus, so knowing I’m in his party, that’s a help.” So much so that her opponent, Kristin Baker, has boasted about working with Cooper while downplaying the “R” next to her name.
That’s not the case in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott is increasingly reviled for his pandemic management—which is partly why Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances to win the nine seats they need to turn the state House. There are nine House districts held by Republicans that were won in 2018 by Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, whose run is widely credited with reviving the state’s withered Democratic infrastructure. He lost to Senator Ted Cruz narrowly, but Democrats picked up an astonishing 12 seats in the House that year.
Run by a bumbling GOP trifecta in the age of coronavirus, ruby-red Texas is unpredictable this year. Biden even leads Trump in a few polls there. “Governor Abbott has taken all the ownership of Covid and has refused to believe science,” says second-time Texas House candidate Joanna Cattanach. “We have refrigerator trucks outside hospitals in Dallas County now.”
The net approval rating for Abbott’s response to Covid has slipped 21 points since June, when 56 percent of Texans approved and only 36 percent disapproved; he is now underwater, with 47 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval. “He’s really made himself the face of the pandemic,” Cattanach says, sounding bewildered. Not only did Abbott open businesses too soon, the public health data shows, but he also discouraged face masks and social distancing and even blocked localities from imposing stricter requirements.
Like Steele, Cattanach, a journalist turned community college instructor, thinks being an educator particularly helps in this race. “Abbott put together a task force on reopening the schools with no teachers on it,” she notes. She says people are asking “if there will be grief counselors when we open up the schools, because people will die. I’m hearing about teachers rushing to make wills.”
Also like Steele, Cattanach was given no chance of winning her race two years ago, but she came even closer, within 220 votes. This time around, she’s getting more local and even national support. She’s backed by Sister District, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and major labor unions. She says, “My message is, ‘Trust me to take care of your kids. Let me clean up this mess in Austin.’ And that’s resonating.”
Like so many women who have run for office in the Trump era, Cattanach, who is Latina, says she returned from the first Women’s March “and just felt like I’d yelled and screamed but I had to do more.” In 2017 she saw that the Texas House was considering a “religious liberty” bill that, among other things, would let state-funded foster care and adoption agencies, largely controlled by Christian charities, discriminate on religious grounds—potentially locking out non-Christians, people in interfaith marriages, or LGBTQ parents. A former foster child, she pitched local writers, “Do you want to get the perspective of a foster care child on this one?” It was a winning angle and helped launch her campaign. (A version of the bill eventually passed.) If elected, she would be the first former foster care child in the Texas legislature.
This year, some hope that a presidential election, which always gets more voters to the polls, could help boost Texas turnout—but maybe not at the state legislative level. “We have to avoid down-ballot drop-off,” Cattanach says. That’s always a challenge in state legislative races, even in the hyperenergized Trump era. ”In 2018 our candidates underperformed Democrats in the same congressional district by about 4 points,” Forward Majority cofounder Vicky Hausman warns. “It’s a real problem.”
“This is where having an obnoxiously unique name could help me,” Cattanach jokes. Like Steele, she believes her race will come down to mobilizing those less likely to vote, not persuading those on the fence. “We’re encouraged by the digital market and reaching young people that way. I’m seen as a progressive new voice. The line used to be that I’m too liberal for this district. Not anymore.”
Kathy Lewis, who’s running a second time for Florida’s Senate District 20, encompassing the Tampa–St. Petersburg area anchored by Hillsborough County, didn’t hear she was too liberal for the district in 2018. Mostly she didn’t hear anything, especially from Democratic Party leaders.
Like Steele and Cattanach, Lewis, who is African American, was driven to run in 2018 by experience. The mother of an adult child who is autistic, she jumped through the hoops of Florida’s health care system to get her child approved for services, only to wait four months without getting any help. After a long struggle with multiple bureaucracies, she wangled the care she needed for her daughter—and decided to run for the state Senate against entrenched GOP incumbent Tom Lee.
“Everyone,” including many state Democratic leaders, “said we were crazy,” she recalls. “No one would vote for us. But the party had somehow miscalculated how much this district was changing.” She garnered an unexpected 46.5 percent of the vote, winning 52 percent in populous Hillsborough County. In 2020, Lee resigned, and suddenly the party had an open seat to contest. According to several reports, Democratic leaders approached at least two others to run, even though Lewis filed almost immediately after Lee’s announcement. “They said later they didn’t know I was on the ballot,” she says, sounding unconvinced.
If Democrats recruited two alternative potential candidates for Lee’s seat, they neglected a whole lot of other districts. That’s where 90 for 90 came in. After the group’s Virginia successes, it moved on to other states, helping recruit candidates where party leaders seemed unable or uninterested. In Florida the Reids reached out to Janelle Christensen, the energetic head of the state Democrats’ environmental caucus. “They explained the advantages of running in every district, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m convinced,’” she says. “It’s not necessarily that they’re going to win, although they could, but they can cut the margins in red districts for Biden and educate people on our issues.” She says she could fill maybe 10 challengers’ seats with folks close to her caucus. “But when I got started talking to them, they talked to their friends, and we recruited 36.” 90 for 90 also worked to help with the unlikely candidates’ state election filing fees, which are $1,800 each.
Other national groups, including the DLCC, have since jumped into Florida. “The conventional wisdom is there’s no path to winning the Florida House. We have a contrarian view,” says Hausman. As in Texas, there are districts that appear flippable, especially the 13 GOP-held seats that were won by either Clinton in 2016 or by gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in 2018.
Still, many people feel the state party is undersupportive of its new insurgents. Inexplicably, challengers have had trouble getting access to VAN, a privately owned list of local voters, with names, addresses, and phone numbers, who have voted or might vote Democratic. “It felt like the party was constantly trying to reinterpret the rules for who qualifies [to get VAN],” Christensen says. “But even once you get it, most of the numbers are bad. Nobody’s even been trying in these districts, in some cases for decades. They’re useless for anyone coming in trying to organize. If all we did in these races is build a list of interested Democrats in VAN, that’s something.”
Sister District cofounder Gaby Goldstein, whose group is also working in Florida, says that’s a common problem in red states, many of which it has targeted since its founding in 2016. “In some places, we have to lay the basic groundwork because VAN is garbage. Many Democratic voter lists are garbage,” she says. I have heard this a lot in red states and districts over the last four years. There have always been stalwart Democratic activists in the reddest places, but a lot of state parties have let the infrastructure “wither away,” Goldstein says.
Lewis eventually got access to VAN. There are gaps in its data, but this time around, she’s more confident anyway. “You know what? With the coronavirus, we have local people who don’t have health care. They can’t access unemployment insurance. They know Florida is a mess,” she says. She adds that after hearing her story in 2018 about fighting with the state to get services for her daughter and hearing it again in 2020, people tell her, “Kathy, I didn’t understand last time, but now I see exactly what you were saying.”
Unfortunately, local party leaders still don’t seem to understand. Lewis benefited from a widely seen Zoom call in July led by Hillsborough County Democratic leader Ione Townsend with local Black leaders. When one asked about the party’s lack of support for Lewis her second time around, Townsend replied, “It’s not high on our list because of where the polling was. What we do is, we prioritize based on our overall goals. White, Black, brown—it doesn’t matter who that candidate is, it’s where they fall on our election priority list.”
Angela Birdsong, a Hillsborough Democratic activist who ran for county commissioner in 2018, responded, “I just think any Black woman in the race right now stands a chance and should be given a little more money than you might think they need. I just feel that you should give them more money!”
Lewis, like other women of color running for office this year, believes the widespread American revulsion over George Floyd’s murder and the movement to end police violence buoy her campaign. For one thing, it has gotten people focused on the role of state and local leaders in reforming police departments. Here’s where electing Democrats can matter—if not always enough. Colorado, which elected a Democratic trifecta over the past few cycles, did away with qualified immunity for police officers in June; New York, which completed a trifecta in 2018, enacted other criminal justice reforms. “We now have a Black Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and a Black Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie,” the DLCC’s Post says of New York. “That’s truly made a difference.”
Lewis talks about another benefit. “I have had at least five white strangers call me out of the blue when George Floyd died,” she says. “They somehow found my website and said they were looking to support an African American woman running for office.”
But not all voters and, sadly, not all Democratic leaders feel the same way. The surge of Black women running for office since Trump was elected is unmistakable. In North Carolina four Black women are running in statewide races, which Democrats believe will buoy Black turnout statewide. All over the country, an unprecedented number of women, many of them women of color, are stepping up. But some people worry these women and other state- level Democrats are not getting the support they need.
“I’m always raising alarms that this field isn’t well resourced,” says Hausman. “The vast majority of donors are focused on federal races. But the Koch brothers’ infrastructure is still there. The dark money is still there.” The Republican State Leadership Committee crushed Democrats in 2010; since then, the DLCC has held its own, occasionally beating its GOP rival in fundraising. The RSLC’s rhetoric is silly: Its Right Lines 2020 campaign exhorts, “Socialism starts in the states. Let’s stop it there, too.”
Though, by all accounts, Republicans have failed to recruit competitive up-and-comers and savvy challengers, they still have access to dark money, as The Guardian reported in June. This year the RSLC is raising more money (it outraised the DLCC in the second quarter), and it’s getting money from giant corporations. Its top five donors are Chevron, Dominion Energy, the tobacco giants Reynolds and Altria, and the private railway company BNSF.
Meanwhile, Democratic state House and Senate caucuses have improved in supporting a broader range of challengers, but it’s not enough, many outside groups say. “Caucuses get a lot of money from incumbents, so they’re focused on protecting them,” Vaughan of Flippable says, accurately. Since the Virginia elections in 2017, which I covered intensively, I’ve heard that from challengers who weren’t getting support—some of whom won anyway.
“I am a little worried about the GOP making a late play,” admits Fiddler of Daily Kos. “They’re going to have lots of money. But they really haven’t done the candidate recruitment they’d need to do,” the kind they did to rustle up challengers to incumbent Democrats, especially in 2010. “So I’m not sure. What do they have to work with?”
Geri Prado, the vice president for state and local campaigns for Emily’s List, agrees. She’s optimistic, with a few reservations, given the pandemic. “Some of our candidates’ individual fundraising is being hard hit, plus they’re having to invest more in absentee voting,” she notes. But she says that support from large institutional players like the DLCC and Emily’s List, combined with some of the more progressive state Democratic caucuses’ cooperation (however imperfect) with outside groups, will continue to improve and give Democrats an advantage this year.
Stacey Abrams says the party has certainly strengthened its state legislative infrastructure since 2016. “The DLCC is laser focused now,” she says, while praising Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee “and a lot of donors and outside activist groups.” But “the lack of participation by voters of color in 2010 was so problematic, Republicans were able to gerrymander.” She, like a lot of people I spoke with, continues to worry that those voters are still being missed by some state outreach efforts.
Even in Virginia in 2019, Bachman observes, “Democrats keep underperforming,” at least partly because outreach to voters scored as less likely to vote was sometimes undervalued when it came to door knocking, media buys, and direct mail. Virginia Democrats took control of both chambers but won only two state Senate seats, fewer than expected. “Given the nature of the 2016 election, the voters who stayed home skewed to Democrats,” she adds. “It couldn’t be more clear that the path to winning more seats is getting lower-propensity voters, particularly lower-propensity voters of color, engaged with our message and turning them out.”
That’s especially true, Abrams says, since 2020 is another census year, with participation threatened by the pandemic and Trump administration malfeasance. “If we do not have adequate participation by voters of color in November,” she warns, “gerrymandering will be worse than we’ve ever seen.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article used a map that incorrectly depicted which political parties controlled state legislatures in 2019. The map has been corrected.