Unprepared Democrats got bulldozed in 2010 by a $30 million Republican campaign to win state legislatures — and the right to draw political maps that would help them hold power for the next decade.
Now, Democrats are readying a massive $50 million effort of their own to shape the next 10 years of elections by flipping state legislative chambers in places as red as Texas and West Virginia next November.
The plan, backed by Democratic megadonors like Donald Sussman and the Soros family as well as small-dollar donors giving online via ActBlue, represents a sea change for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a former backwater in Democratic politics that has transformed as the party grappled with the importance of redistricting. In 2020, the last election before states redraw their political boundaries using new Census data, the winners of many state legislatures get the power to draw congressional lines that will last an entire decade.
In preparation, the DLCC has quadrupled its staff, partnered with a slew of other large Democratic groups including EMILY’s List and Barack Obama’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and planned to target as many as 14 states, according to plans shared first with POLITICO. The group will start by targeting one or more chambers in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, and potentially expand over the course of the election to target additional legislative chambers in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Montana, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Steering Democrats’ strategy to win back state legislative power is Jessica Post, an operative who is little-known outside Democratic campaign circles and has spent the last five years turning the once-sleepy DLCC into a juggernaut.
“She has done one hell of a job over there,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which has built up its own state legislative program (with past help from Post, who helped draw up plans during a stint at EMILY’s List.) “Frankly, the proof is in the victories and in the fundraising.”
Post worked at the DLCC as its field director in 2010, when Democrats lost close to 700 state legislative seats in a single night, a blowout she didn’t anticipate despite her troubling knowledge that Democrats were getting badly outspent while also facing blowback after Obama’s first two years in office. Post watched the midterm election results on a rainy night at an Irish bar in Harrisburg, Pa. — at one point quietly stepping outside, despondent, to lie down on the wet, cold concrete.
“I realized when I came back [to the DLCC] in 2016 that there was a huge gap in the political space. Republicans continued to dramatically outspend Democrats. Republicans controlled most of America’s legislative chambers,” Post told POLITICO. “So we’ve done everything we can to scale to $50 million this election.”
The DLCC is chiefly targeting states where flipping just a handful of seats will give Democrats a seat at the governing table in 2021. Six target states are currently under full Republican control, with Democrats locked out of both the governorship and state legislative majorities. And the group is particularly interested in states where state lawmakers have absolute power over the congressional maps and the governor has little influence, like North Carolina.
Later in the year, the DLCC hopes to target other states where it could either flip legislative chambers in good election conditions — like Florida — or where the committee hopes to do damage to Republicans’ majorities, like West Virginia. The committee both spends money on behalf of candidates and offers them campaign infrastructure they might not be able to afford on their own, like graphic design services and training on how to build out a small-dollar email fundraising list.
The DLCC and Civis Analytics have developed a modeling system that uses local demographics and data, including online surveys, to estimate the odds of winning individual state legislative races around the country, helping the committee direct its money optimally and keeping it focused on seats that can flip legislative chambers. The system helps the committee overcome the lack of polling in many state races.
Though Democrats have made gains since President Donald Trump’s election, they are entering 2020 behind. The party lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats during Obama’s presidency, and Republicans control 60 percent of all state legislative chambers, according to the National Council of State Legislators. Republicans also have full control — including the governorship — of 21 states, while Democrats hold 13. (Control is divided in the remaining states.)
Post is both the DLCC’s leader and its chief fundraiser, and she has convinced big Democratic Party donors to give millions to her effort. George Soros’ son, Jonathan, gave $1 million to the DLCC last year, and Sussman has donated more than $1 million to the committee since Trump’s election as well.
Republicans have disclosed relatively few details about how they plan to win 2020’s pre-redistricting elections. Their central committee, the Republican State Leadership Committee — which helps elect lieutenant governors and other officeholders in addition to state legislators — recently announced it raised $19 million in 2019. The group has also recruited former House Speakers Paul Ryan, John Boehner and Newt Gingrich to help its efforts. (The DLCC, which raised $33 million during the 2018 elections, has not released its total for 2019.)
“Democrats can’t beat President Trump and they can’t take back the Senate, so they’re spending staggering sums in state elections to make it easier for radical liberals to win in heavily gerrymandered districts,” RSLC spokesperson David Abrams said. “We’re going to stop them by protecting our majorities in states the Left has failed to win in for years: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and more.”
In Texas, a special election has become an early test for both parties, drawing in a slew of big-name Democrats along with the DLCC as the party tries to get a head start on its work in 2020.
Democrat Eliz Markowitz is trying to flip an open Houston-area House of Representatives seat that was once firmly Republican but has been trending slowly to the left. She has attracted support from Beto O’Rourke, who has made it a central focus to flip the Texas House, which is nine seats away from a Democratic majority. There was also a visit from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went to Texas to knock doors with Markowitz in late December, and an endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden.
On a Friday afternoon in January, Post rang Markowitz to check in from her office in downtown Washington. She often offers a guiding hand and, sometimes, plays taskmaster to aspiring state legislators, seated at a conference table in her office in front of a fifteen-foot wide whiteboard plastered with big-picture messaging ideas for the DLCC — “Imagine if we had a blue Congress,” one bulleted note says — and facing a small wooden plaque that reads, in cursive, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
On that day, Post was full of questions for Markowitz: “What’s the number one issue you’re hearing while you’re out knocking on doors?” Post asked. “What did your day look like today?”
She also had news: The DLCC is sending an aide in to help Markowitz’s campaign, and Post is planning to come knock on doors, too. Hungry for an early victory in Texas, the committee has spent $100,000 helping Markowitz so far so far.
It’s the day of a rally with O’Rourke, and “it’s insane,” Markowitz said. A group associated with Swing Left, which helped flip the House of Representatives to Democrats in 2018, is flying in from California, and O’Rourke supporters are driving down from Iowa. Others are arriving from Washington state.
“I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anything like this for a [state] House race,” Markowitz says.
Post has: It started in Virginia in early 2017, after Trump took office and disaffected voters needed an outlet for their political rage. But she remembers when her party was out of the game.
When she worked at the DLCC in 2010, Post said, “People in the district weren’t even coming out to door-knock for their candidates. This is an awesome change.”
Read more: politico.com