Can Democrats Ever Win Back State Legislatures?

One group is putting $70 million on it happening in the next five years.

A picture made October 14, 2011 shows the Capitol Building in Pennsylvania's capital Harrisburg. (National Journal)

Caring about the 2016 presidential race is so over; now all the cool kids are watching 2020.

Since 2008, Democrats have lost control of 30 state legislative chambers—totaling 910 seats—and 11 governorships. Those were some of the cheery findings of the Democratic National Committee's postmortem report on 2014 (aka Shellackgate).

Now, one group—the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee—is striking out with an ambitious goal to win many of those state legislature seats back over the next five years. Back in August, the DLCC launched Advantage 2020, a super PAC devoted to rebuilding Democratic power at the state level with the goal of eventually holding the crayons in 2021, when states will redraw congressional district lines.

It's a quixotic mission, given that many Republican legislatures redrew the maps in 2011 specifically to ensure their party's continued electoral victory. Still, with the right combination of timing, recruiting, outreach, funding, and dumb luck, Democrats might actually be able to recoup some of their losses.

The power of the states to determine power in Washington is not insignificant: 36 state legislatures draw congressional district lines comprising 336 total congressional districts. That's more than three-quarters of the makeup of the House of Representatives.

Democrats' loss of state legislatures before 2010 has reverberated past those states' borders, allowing Republicans to redistrict as they saw fit in 2011 and raising the star power of purple-state Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Ohio's John Kasich, and Michigan's Rick Snyder. Last week, the DLCC announced that Mark Schauer, who lost the governor's race to Snyder last year, will lead its new effort to take back power at the state level—and, by extension, nationally.

The group projects it will spend $70 million on state-level races over the next five years and plans to focus its efforts on six states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Those states, which draw the lines for 94 congressional seats, are all Republican-controlled at the state level, yet all favored President Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012.

This is where the DLCC sees room for movement.

"These are battleground states that are very important to the DLCC and have huge national implications," Schauer told National Journal. "Make no mistake: It is about winning and building upon the DLCC's track record of doing that."

Today, Republicans control 69 of the country's 99 state legislative chambers (every state has two chambers except for Nebraska). That's nearly 70 percent of the total. So, how feasible is it for Democrats to regain the seats they lost, in districts that (they argue) have been tailor-drawn for Republicans' benefit? There are a lot of factors to consider.

One reason the DLCC sees room for optimism is that, between now and the end of 2020, American voters will have participated in two more presidential elections. That's good news for Democrats, who tend to do better in presidential years than in midterm years (2014, e.g.) as they see higher turnout among young people and minorities.

Schauer said demographic shifts—like the growing population of millennials and Latino voters—will also work to Democrats' advantage.

"We've got the analytical expertise, the political expertise within the DLCC and its board, and its state partners and other allies to do this sophisticated, state-specific strategy," Schauer said. "I think Democrats within state capitals as well as in Washington see the kind of policies—attacking women's health, undermining voting rights, attacking the middle class, immigrants, and minority groups—all of these are out of step with what it takes to move our country forward. So we know what the stakes are, and that's why we've taken this bold step to change the landscape and put an end to right-wing gerrymandering."

The Republican State Leadership Committee—the conservative equivalent of the DLCC—would beg to differ. RSLC President Matt Walter argued that Democrats had no problem with partisan redistricting, as long as they had control of the maps.

"The last half of the 20th century saw significant Democratic control at the state legislative level as well as Congress, right up until the '94 revolution, largely because they were pretty efficient at redistricting. Republicans have caught up, we feel, in the last redistricting cycle," Walter told National Journal. "The Democrats have finally woken up and realized that there is a state-level government and that it's critically important in people's lives."

The RSLC has also been ramping up outreach efforts to minority groups and women, which Walter says helped elect 140 Republican women to office in the last election cycle. It's another example that, no matter how much effort Democrats put into regaining power at the state level, they are not operating in a vacuum.

If the DLCC can help recruit strong Democratic candidates to run for state office over the next three election cycles, at least two of those cycles will be more favorable to them in terms of who will be voting. But that is a big if.

"All of the super PAC money in the world probably won't win districts if there's a failure to recruit strong candidates," Charles Franklin, a political scientist at Marquette University, told National Journal. "Republicans are not going to sit around and just let the Democrats do whatever they want on recruitment."

There are certain circumstances under which Democrats could see the same big wave of victories in 2020 that Republicans saw in 2010, even with the district maps working against them. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats in Wisconsin made huge gains and eventually enjoyed full-party control of state government, only to have that control completely upended in 2010. The district lines didn't change; voters did.

"Under the circumstances of a major pro-Democratic wave, I think you shouldn't discount the ability of fired-up voters shifting party control even without changes in districting," Franklin said. "There's a lot of the assumption that districting is destiny. It's a big chunk of destiny, but so are wave elections."

For the DLCC, there is a silver lining to the swell of victory that Republicans saw at the state level in 2010: term limits. Lawmakers in three of Advantage 2020's six target states—Florida, Michigan, and Ohio—are term-limited, meaning that many of the seats will be wide open in five years.

Political waves can be somewhat predictable, but like Brownian motion, a lot of the movement is left up to chance. It's impossible to say today whether Democrats will be able to take back state legislatures in 2020. There are simply too many factors to take into account.

"There's no guarantee at all that 2020 will be a good year for Democrats," Franklin said. "At this point, for all we know, there's a Republican president elected in '16 who's wildly popular and sweeps the reelection in 2020. I wouldn't count those chickens before they're hatched, by any means."

One thing Schauer and Walter can agree on: Just because they may disagree with how the other side draws districts, that doesn't mean the power of the map-drawing should be put in the hands of nonpartisan judges.

"The entire design of the system is setting up a system of checks and balances rather than waiting for a benevolent line-drawer with no political aspirations to draw the lines for them, because what we realize as Americans is, that doesn't exist," Walter said. "It's empowering, and for 50 years when the Democrats had the pen at the state level, it was seen as an empowering thing. Now that they've lost touch, lost elections, all of a sudden the constitutional process that has served them so well for many years is now suddenly a bad thing. And that's hypocrisy, and people won't buy it."

Schauer agreed that redistricting belongs in the hands of the legislature but added that Republicans shouldn't be allowed to pack left-leaning voters into as few districts as possible.

"I think the process can be done fairly legislatively," Schauer said. "Legislatures are supposed to represent the interests of the people. But they have to be also based on fair standards."

So, whether or not Democrats will be able to reset the game board come 2021, they can at least agree with Republicans on the basic rules.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the full name of the RSLC and the number of state legislative chambers Republicans control. RSLC stands for the Republican State Leadership Committee, and Republicans across the country control 69 chambers.