JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Drowned out by the coronavirus and national politics, Republican and Democratic operatives are quietly preparing for a battle of state legislative supremacy later this year that could have a profound effect on political power for the next decade.
The November ballot will feature more than 5,000 elections for state House and Senate members in 35 states who will play a significant role in crafting or passing new voting districts for Congress and state legislative chambers based on census results.
Republicans, who currently control a majority of state legislative chambers, generally will be on defense against a well-funded Democratic effort. But Republicans are trying to change that narrative.
The national Republican State Leadership Committee on Tuesday rolled out a target list focused on a dozen states where it hopes to strengthen Republican redistricting power or dent that of Democrats. The targets include 115 state legislative seats held by Democrats in districts won by Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.
"The best way for us to play defense is to go on offense and flip these seats,” said Austin Chambers, president of the GOP legislative organization.
Trump could be a big factor in the down-ballot races. National surveys of voters from 2006-2018 have shown that presidential approval carries nearly three times as much impact in determining voters' choices for state legislative candidates as their approval of the legislature itself, said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University who studies elections with a focus on state legislatures.
That's likely to remain the case this year, Rogers said, though there's a chance that voters could be more attuned to state elections because of the attention given to governors who have been leading their states' coronavirus response.
National Democratic groups have compiled similar target lists focused on Republican-held seats, with a goal of flipping control of several closely divided chambers to their favor. Democrats are focusing not only on districts that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election, but also on some Trump-won districts where they think likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden may fare better.