Laying a Progressive Foundation: Targeting State Legislative Races in 2020

Presidential fundraising is none of our concern.

That’s a slight overstatement, but once we reach the general election, it’s largely true: the amount of money that we’re generally able to donate or direct is peanuts compared to the outlandish sums being raised by candidates these days. Hillary Clinton, even before accounting for outside spending, raised nearly one billion dollars by herself in 2016, and this was still less than Obama raised in 2012. Joe Biden raised $141 million in June 2020 alone.

Donations can, and will, make more of a difference the lower down the ballot you go. Senate races matter, but even those are regularly drawing over $10 million per quarter these days as well. What I have in mind is even lower.

It seems like ages ago, but control of the Virginia State Assembly in 2017 came down to a random-drawing tiebreaker in a state legislative race. Despite the massive amount of interest in Virginia state races that year, Shelley Simonds nearly flipped this deep-red seat with a total fundraising haul of only $577,000. Even small-dollar donations are huge in that context.

I yell about these statistics often, but I’m going to keep doing so. 22 of the current 47 Democratic senators got their start as state legislators (another nine started in municipal office). State legislators are the bench. Not just for Democrats as a whole, but for progressives. The former state legislators in the Senate include people like Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, and Ed Markey.

And yet, after the 2016 election, Democratic caucuses in state legislatures stood in ruins. Of the 7300 state legislative seats nationwide, Republicans held over 4200 of them, an aggregate margin of over a thousand seats. Through special elections and big cycles in 2017, 2018, and 2019, the numbers have stabilized somewhat, but Democrats are still behind by about 400 total seats (with proportionally worse numbers in important state senates). Republicans control 59 out of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide, which is down from the 68 they controlled at the start of 2017 but still includes states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But state legislatures aren’t just springboards. They are the primary creators of policy on criminal justice, education, voting rights, and far more. There is still a lot of racial justice work to be done at the state level, and despite Julián Castro’s detailed plan for policing reform as a presidential candidate, leaning on state legislatures is not only a more tailored approach but is also much easier to do. How many times have you called a senator, and how many times have you called your state representative? How many calls do you think your state representative gets?

And, of course, in 2020, there is a major added incentive on the table: redistricting. The majority of states still have their state legislatures draw Congressional and state legislative district lines, and the winners of this election will be the ones who have the opportunity to do so. Even for those of us who are wary of rewarding a system that props up centrist candidates, flipping state legislative chambers takes on particular significance this time around, especially given that it also expands the map of potential seats where progressive candidates can safely run in primaries.

For progressives who are desperately trying to move the party left, the state legislature offers an unique opportunity. Many potentially competitive seats are not otherwise contested. (Scroll down to the Iowa, Arizona, and Wisconsin sections below for some examples.) If you’re the only person who files to run for a race, congratulations, you’re the nominee. Progressives should be taking greater advantage of this opportunity to actually drive conversations with voters, even if they’re not expecting to win. And in many of these seats, having the (D) by your name in a good cycle might actually be enough. And who knows where you could go from there. Charles Booker almost made the leap, but he’s still got an entire career ahead of him.

With all of this in mind, I’ve put together a list of seven legislative chambers that are close enough to flip in 2020, as well as enough state legislators in each one of those chambers to gain the majority. I’m going to toss at least $20 to each district linked here—more for people who I truly believe in. But I hope you click around to a couple of different campaign pages linked below to see exactly who is running for these seats. Some of these candidates have municipal government experience, but many have no such experience; just some ideas and a desire to fix things. And that describes basically every leftist I know.

Think about these candidates, and think about who you know could put together a similar effort and be a voice for meaningful change in settings where power gets a little too comfortable with itself.

I’ve culled Democratic candidates from the closest elections in the last cycle, tossing candidates out who tout their “moderate” or “conservative” record or other concerning policy positions. I’ll then be listing two categories of remaining candidates: “leftier candidates,” who are the people whose platforms I tend to like more, and “most gettable,” which covers everybody else. Both categories will be ordered based on the last cycle’s margin of defeat. These chambers are organized in descending order of my enthusiasm:

Minnesota Senate (35 R/32 D)

Depending on how you count the power-sharing arrangement in the Alaska House, Minnesota is the only state in the country with a split legislature, and it’s largely because the Minnesota Senate didn’t hold elections in 2018. Only two seats need to flip in order to restore a Dem majority. There are a lot of very vague platitudes on state legislative platforms, and Lee, Alston Fizer, and Johnson Stewart all manage to break through that barrier and stand for real action. Senate District 11, the seat Lee is running for in particular is one that Democrats actually retained in 2016, but a 2019 special election flipped it to Republicans. And in SD44, I would have a hard time choosing between Alston Fizer and Johnson Stewart, who are both advocating for substantial structural change in policing. Regardless of who wins the primary (August 4), I will be donating in the general election campaign.

In addition, SD11 is within the boundaries of Minnesota’s 1st congressional district, which was one of only three seats the GOP flipped in 2018 and thus a prime 2020 pickup target. SD44 is within the boundaries of MN-03, which the Dems flipped in 2018 and likely need to hold in order to retain a House majority.

Leftier candidates: Michelle Lee, SD11 (special election flip); Zina Alston Fizer/Ann Johnson Stewart, SD44 (0.4%)
Most gettable: Aric Putnam, SD14 (0.4%); Rita Albrecht, SD5 (1.3%); Jon Olson, SD20 (4.0%)

Michigan House (58 R/52 D)

The Michigan House, like most of the remaining chambers, last held elections in 2018. Dems came extremely close in a number of races, falling just three seats short of a majority. These candidates are generally less lefty than the ones in Minnesota, but O’Neil, Breen, and McAllister are still clearly left of the median candidate I’m boosting here. (Again, I will be supporting whoever prevails in the August 4 primary between Breen and McAllister.) Michigan is, of course, also a key 2020 presidential battleground and has a Senate race that could be competitive (the GOP nominee has not been polling well, but he has been fundraising well), so upballot effects are again possible here.

Leftier candidates: Dan O’Neil, HD104 (0.7%); Kelly Breen/Megan McAllister, HD38 (1.3%)
Most gettable: Janet Metsa, HD110 (1.6%); Christine Morse, HD61 (2.7%)

Pennsylvania Senate (28 R/22 D)

Another chamber where the last elections were in 2016, so don’t let the margin numbers scare you. Pennsylvania is also, of course, a presidential battleground and also the site of a recent redistricting fight that will likely become less messy if Democrats can flip one or both of the chambers of the state legislature. Only half of the 50 seats are up, but there are four races that could erase the current GOP majority. Diaz upset the party’s preferred candidate in the primary and is running an unabashedly lefty campaign, although John Kane’s platform is also reasonably good.

Leftier candidate: Janet Diaz, SD13 (15.7%)
Most gettable: John Kane, SD9 (2.7%); George Scott, SD15 (3.4%); Julie Slomski, SD49 (6.9%)

North Carolina House (65 R/55 D)

This is a redistricting three-alarm fire. How so, you may ask, when Roy Cooper occupies the governorship and seems poised to cruise to reelection? Well, because he doesn’t get the power to veto redistricting maps, which currently can be approved by the state’s GOP-controlled House and Senate…unless we can flip the 65-55 House this cycle. North Carolina is viewed as more of a stretch-goal state for the presidency, but it is likely vital to any path to Senate control with Cal Cunningham’s campaign. The candidates in these races tend not to be so far left, but there is still some differentiation to be done based on Ericson and Cain’s issue pages.

Leftier candidates: Adam Ericson, HD20 (5.3%); Jason Cain, HD51 (5.6%)
Most gettable: Ricky Hurtado, HD63 (1.0%); Marcia Morgan, HD19 (2.4%); Aimy Steele, HD82 (5.5%); Gail Young, HD75 (5.6%)

Iowa House (54 R/46 D)

The Iowa House actually has a number of near-miss races from 2018 that could plausibly flip the 54-46 GOP majority, but many of the other candidates are running to the right (or at least to the center). Even this crop is not necessarily in sync with nearly all of my policy preferences, but they are the best of the bunch. The Iowa Senate and the statehouse are both controlled by Republicans, so flipping this chamber would go a long way to preventing redistricting shenanigans (as well as providing upballot effects for Theresa Greenfield’s campaign to unseat Joni Ernst in the Senate).

House District 9 is emblematic of my frustrations with the way Democrats and progressives treat state legislative races, though. In 2018, the incumbent Republican rep defeated their Democratic challenger by only 3.5%. This time around, no Democrat filed to run, and the incumbent will be unopposed. This is the kind of race that progressives should be ready to jump into at a moment’s notice.

Leftier candidate: Jen Pellant, HD16 (1.1%)
Most gettable seats: Kayla Koether, HD55 (0.1%); Phil Miller, HD82 (0.3%); Andrea Phillips, HD37 (4%)

Arizona House (31 R/29 D)
Arizona Senate (17 R/13 D)

These two…hoo boy. Both of these chambers are extremely close. But Arizona Democrats seem to be making extremely odd choices. The 30 legislative districts are the same for the House and the Senate, but two members are simultaneously elected from each district to the House and only one to the Senate. Despite this, the Democrats have chosen to run “single-shot” candidates in numerous House races, or in other words, only one Democrat in a two-seat race. I see absolutely no upside for this strategy, and progressives should be filing to claim that second spot on the ticket.

There aren’t a ton of leftists running in Arizona, but there are still some decent candidates who can positively affect policy and provide additional upballot effects for Senate candidate Mark Kelly.

Leftier candidates (House): Kristin Dybvig-Pawelko, LD15 (6.1%), Sharon Girard, LD8 (7.2%)
Leftier candidates: (Senate): none
Most gettable (House): Coral Evans, LD6 (0.3%); Judy Schwiebert, LD20 (1.4%)
Most gettable (Senate): Christine Porter Marsh, LD28 (0.3%); Felicia French, LD6 (1.8%); Doug Ervin, LD20 (3.9%)

Stretch goals

There are four chambers that I think would be worth keeping an eye on as well, but I don’t consider them quite as good targets for 2020.

Texas House (83 R/67 D): Democrats gained 12 seats in the midterms here, putting this chamber within striking distance of 50-50. But I think that the lift here, with 9 flips necessary to shift control, is going to be too large. That being said, because the Republican hold on the Texas Senate and the governorship is basically assured, this could be an important moonshot for redistricting purposes.

Pennsylvania House (110 R/93 D): Similarly to Texas, a good midterm cycle pushed this in range, but this chamber would also need 9 flips to go Democratic. That being said, because this could create a Democratic trifecta if it flips, it may be important for redistricting purposes.

Wisconsin Senate (19 R/14 D): The Wisconsin Senate only needs three flips, but only half of the seats are up in 2020, and only one of the competitive seats has a candidate that is compelling to me: Joni Anderson in SD 14, an unabashed leftist who was the only candidate to file in her district. This is the kind of stuff we need to be doing everywhere.

Florida Senate (23 R/17 D): Only four flips are needed, but like Wisconsin, only half of the seats are up, and very few of them are expected to be competitive.

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