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Democrats Push To Flip Party Control Of State Legislatures

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're going to spend these next several minutes talking about the election, not the presidential race but some of the more than 5,800 state lawmaker seats that are up for grabs across the country. Now, these races do not always attract a ton of attention. They do increasingly attract loads of cash, and the winners can wield a lot of power. In this election year, Democrats are largely playing offense. They're trying to take back control of chambers that Republicans swept in the last decade. And that is the case in the three states we're going to hear from now. Let me welcome Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz., Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in East Lansing, Mich., and Tim Pugmire from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Welcome, all three of you.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Thank you.

TIM PUGMIRE, BYLINE: Hello.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: All right, I'm going to let each of you set the stage in your state. And let's just go in the order I just introduced you in, which means, Ben, you get to kick us off from Arizona; Arizona, which, as we know - very much a red state historically, which is something Democrats are pushing very hard to change this year. What exactly is happening?

GILES: Yeah, Dems haven't controlled either chamber in the state legislature since 1992. And this year, they only need to pick up two seats to control the House and three seats to control the state Senate. In the last decade or so, most of their gains toward that effort have been in the Phoenix metro area. That's places like District 28 in North Phoenix. Two years ago, Dems made history, and they swept the district's two House seats. And now this year, Republican State Senator Kate Brophy McGee is desperately, desperately trying to hang on to a seat that could determine control of the Senate. I talked to Martin Quezada. He's a Democratic senator who's watched the shift in that district over the past decade.

MARTIN QUEZADA: Her winning percentage each cycle gets smaller and smaller to the point where, in 2018, she only won by a little over 300 votes. And that district is continuing to turn bluer and bluer.

GILES: And those Phoenix metro area suburbs, they're also a boon to Democrats running statewide. They helped U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema win in 2018, and it's helping former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls this year.

KELLY: Such a razor, razor thin margin you're looking at there. And I suppose we should just stress that even if Democrats do sweep the House and Senate, they will still be contending with a Republican governor, with Governor Doug Ducey, who is there. OK, let me flip us to Michigan, where it's almost hard to know where to start, Abigail Censky. You all have had so much going on. It was just a couple of weeks ago that Michigan was dominating national political headlines with this alleged plot to kidnap the governor in your state, Gretchen Whitmer. So let me start us there because to remind, Gretchen Whitmer is a Democrat. She has clashed repeatedly with Republicans who currently control the statehouse, something she and other Democrats would like to change.

CENSKY: That's right. Democrats are making a play for the House here in Michigan. And to do that, they're going to need to pick up seats in the suburbs and exurbs of Detroit, where they did pick up some seats in 2018. And a win for Democrats here would be a win for Whitmer. She's been up against Republican-controlled state legislature since she came into office. But some Republicans and longtime observers of our legislature feel it's more likely that there will be a split House here, which would just mean a whole new level of gridlock in Michigan.

KELLY: And given that, that that is the view from Republicans you're speaking with, why do Democrats think they do have a bigger opportunity this year to take over the state legislature?

CENSKY: So they're making a play for these inner and outer ring suburbs, places that are aging out of Michigan's gerrymandered maps. And Democratic candidates that I've talked to are saying their original messages of, you know, believing in science, funding education and protecting health care are just hitting different with voters who have been living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Their, you know, kids may be in online school, and they're thinking about health a lot more. Representative Laurie Pohutsky is a millennial microbiologist who won one of those 2018 seats, and she needs to keep that seat this year. She said voters have just been a lot more receptive.

LAURIE POHUTSKY: It seems to be more pressing for a lot of people. And because of that, they're much more willing to have conversations with a Democrat when, perhaps, they might not have in 2018 and certainly in 2016.

KELLY: All right, so that is one view from Michigan. Let me turn to our last state. That would be Minnesota. As Tim Pugmire - you were there in another state with a Democratic governor, Tim Walz. What are the dynamics at play in Minnesota this election year?

PUGMIRE: Well, we have Democrats in control of the House, Republicans in control of the Senate but just by a slim, three-seat majority, so Democrats definitely see an opportunity to flip control there. They're targeting suburban districts currently held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won four years ago. Republicans believe they can expand their majority, and they're targeting some rural districts that are left held by Republicans where President Trump won in 2016.

KELLY: And I want to draw attention to what the stakes are there for control of the statehouse in Minnesota because one of the tasks that legislators there are going to face in the coming years is redrawing the political map for the state. How big an issue, how divisive is redistricting right now?

PUGMIRE: Well, it's a relatively quiet issue. They have the constitutional responsibility to redraw these maps, but they actually haven't done it in decades because if they can't agree or they can't meet the deadline, then the courts step in. Judges have routinely been involved in settling redistricting in Minnesota over 40 years. And it's usually been a consequence of divided government, so things could be different if Democrats win the Senate this time and keep the House. But I talked to Republican Senate leader Paul Gazelka, who says divided government is needed to resolve redistricting fairly.

PAUL GAZELKA: So I'm optimistic that if we have the majority, that we will be part of a group that actually does do redistricting without going to the courts.

KELLY: Before I let you go, I just want to get a quick word from each of you about the money in play with these races. We are hearing from states across the country, where all kinds of fundraising records are being broken this year. And I want to hear how it's playing in each of your states.

Ben, you start again in Arizona. What kind of spending are you seeing there?

GILES: So I can remember six years ago, a $300,000 legislative campaign was groundbreaking. But if you remember that Republican senator hanging on for dear life in North Phoenix - as of September, she's raised twice that amount, and roughly a million dollars has been spent from outside groups supporting and opposing her this campaign.

KELLY: And how about in Michigan, Abigail?

CENSKY: Well, a whopping 2.5 million has been spent on just broadcast advertising here, and it's really concentrated. Just five of the 110 districts comprise more than half of all broadcast advertising spending. And races here have attracted nearly 9 million in fundraising.

KELLY: And, Tim, you get the last word again from Minnesota.

PUGMIRE: Well, we could see some million-dollar legislative races this time, which is pretty unusual, pretty rare. The next campaign finance reports are due out this week. That'll tell us more. But we know that a lot of outside groups are raising millions and spending it. We just don't know exactly where it's all going.

KELLY: A snapshot there from three parts of the country and how the contest for the state legislature are unfolding there. That was Tim Pugmire from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in East Lansing, Mich., and Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz.

Thanks so much to all three of you. Hang in there this next week.

GILES: Thank you.

PUGMIRE: Thank you.

CENSKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.