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Are You Watching Your State Lawmaker Elections? Here's Why You Should

State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers in Des Moines, Iowa, in June.
State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers in Des Moines, Iowa, in June.

When it comes to the presidency and the U.S. Senate, Democrats are largely playing offense. That's true further down the ballot, too, for the offices where many of the policies that affect our daily lives are made: state legislatures.

Voters will decide on more than 5,800 state lawmaker seats next week. With control of 40 chambers to Republicans' 58, Democrats are vying for one or both houses in some historically red states: Arizona, Georgia and Texas, and also in swing states including Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Flipping just a few seats could mean taking majority control of a chamber in a number of places.

And given former Vice President Joe Biden's national lead, polls and rankings have only shifted further into state Democrats' favor.

The coronavirus

While governors have been the face of the COVID-19 response, many lawmakers have also returned to their state capitols to try to cushion the blow of the pandemic on their constituents by reimagining state budgets and distributing CARES Act dollars, among other things.

In Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Kansas, Washington and other states, Republican lawmakers have taken their Democratic governors to court over pandemic mandates.

In Michigan, the state Supreme Court eventually upended Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's powers, ruling that the authority that underpinned her hundreds of executive orders in response to the coronavirus was unconstitutional.

Now Republican lawmakers will have a much bigger role in deciding what happens next when it comes to controlling the virus in Michigan. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has said he doesn't want a mask mandate and that the state should instead rely on "trusting people to do the right thing" and that we should all learn "to live with this virus."

Despite a growing number of cases, in an interview with MLive, Shirkey said he believes Michigan needs an "element of herd immunity" to get past the virus. Several medical professionals, including a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that could mean 30,000 additional deaths in Michigan.

Shirkey's chamber, the state Senate, isn't on the ballot this year, but all of the 110 seats in the Michigan House are. Democrats are just four seats away from taking control there, which would not only be a win for Democratic lawmakers but also for Whitmer, who has been deadlocked with legislators since taking office two years ago.

Come January, there's no reason to expect that state capitols all over the country won't be bustling with policymakers, masked (or not), socially distanced (or not), or beamed-in via video, helping to decide where the U.S. goes next when it comes to COVID-19.

Redistricting

Once a decade states go through the process of redrawing district lines for both congressional and state legislative maps. And in the 30-plus states where lawmakers are in control of that process, a party majority in one or both houses is coveted in years like 2021 when redistricting happens.

In Texas, where Democrats haven't controlled either chamber since 1993, the party is just nine seats away from winning a majority in the 150-member House of Representatives.

"It will be a seismic change for Texas. And that means that we will have fair maps in the redistricting process. The Republicans won't be able to gerrymander and to draw maps that are unfair to voters," says Andrew Reagan with the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee.

When the Texas Legislature redraws political maps, Democrats want to make sure they have a seat at the table this time — they didn't in 2011.

"I think it's closer than it's been in a long time," says Jim Henson, a pollster in Texas. Republicans are losing a lot of ground in down-ballot races in suburban and exurban parts of Texas, he says.

Policy

But it's not all about COVID-19 and redistricting. Much of the significance around state legislatures has to do with the balance of power and who makes policy.

There is only one state, Minnesota, where Democrats and Republicans share control of the legislature. (Alaska is an exception, but we'll just let our political reporter in Juneau explain why that one is different.)

Democrats haven't controlled both houses in Arizona since 1966 and Republicans have held total party control over the state government (including the governor) for 12 years. This year, both chambers are within reach of the Democrats, again, getting a boost in polls because of Biden's projected lead.

While in control, Arizona Republicans have pushed for policies like tax cuts and school choice, including vouchers. Meanwhile, Democrats have been clamoring for better funding for public education.

A Democratic majority in one or both houses wouldn't guarantee a Democratic agenda — the state's governor, Doug Ducey, is a Republican with veto authority — but they could block Republican GOP priorities at the legislative level.

Likewise, North Carolina Republicans have controlled both the state House and the state Senate for about a decade and hold only a few seats over Democrats in 2020. In that time, North Carolina has become notable for policies like the transgender bathroom bill and gerrymandering.

A tip in Democrat's favor could mean expanding Medicaid to cover more North Carolinians.

The money

Pricetags for these races have hit new records. In Georgia, for example, where Democrats made a dent in the GOP's stronghold in 2018 by flipping 13 seats, Republicans have been organizing and fundraising in new ways to prevent Democrats from making further gains in 2020.

This year, Democrats need to flip at least eight seats to take control of the Senate and 16 seats to take the House.

Even while much of the Republican strategy statewide has been to protect vulnerable GOP incumbents in metro Atlanta and retake seats they lost in 2018, southwest of Atlanta, Republicans want something they don't have: House District 132.

It's the most expensive state legislative race in Georgia's history. Held by Democrats for years, the district went to Donald Trump in 2016 and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.

David Jenkins is the GOP nominee trying to unseat incumbent Democratic House Minority Leader Bob Trammell in the most expensive state legislative race in Georgia's history.
Emma Hurt / WABE
David Jenkins is the GOP nominee trying to unseat incumbent Democratic House Minority Leader Bob Trammell in the most expensive state legislative race in Georgia's history.

"That should be a Republican seat," says Austin Chambers. He's the president of The Republican State Leadership Committee, a major Republican PAC working nationally to bolster Republican state legislatures, which has named the race its top target in the country. The RSLC alone has pledged to spend about $1 million on the GOP nominee, David Jenkins.

"I told everyone that I talked to that they were going to see a race like they've never seen before in this district, and it has surprised me to be honest with you," Jenkins says. "I didn't expect the level of support that I've gotten."

Jenkins is an Army combat veteran, air ambulance pilot and a goat farmer whose campaign has pulled in big-name Republican support in Georgia.

The family of the incumbent, Democratic State House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, goes back generations in the district. He practices law in a house that his grandfather and great-great-aunt and uncle once owned. He says Republicans are misunderstanding his constituents by thinking they can "buy this seat."

Plus, he says he is glad to have the money focused on him because it means fewer Republican dollars to defend the seats his caucus is trying to flip.

"My granddaddy was a farmer. And my granddaddy had a saying about money: Money is like manure," Trammell says. "It worked best when you spread it around, to make things grow. And when you piled it up in one place, it started to stink."

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