Ten Months to Go: The State Landscape in 2020

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22 mins read
Minnesota State Senate. Chris Gaukel [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2020 is the last chance for Democrats to undo the damage of the last decade. Since 2010, we have watched Democrats lose 1,000 state legislative seats, seen Republicans gerrymander anti-democratic legislative majorities after taking power, and then use that power of the legislature to enact laws to suppress the right to vote. The good news is that Democrats can make major gains in 2020. The bad news is that it won’t be easy. Our initial ratings for the key state legislative chambers show that while a few chambers should fall our way with a good year, many more will require big investments and new strategies and approaches.

Today, we are writing about where Democrats can win and where it will be more of a challenge.

In our next piece, we’ll cover where we are focusing our efforts at EveryDistrict.

After that, this series will pick back up with a discussion of the candidates, dollars, and data that could help us actually win in these places. As the year continues, we’ll profile each state in detail.

Where Democrats can win in 2020

You may have heard a few stories recently about where Democratic groups will be spending resources to win the states in 2020. Based on our analysis, here is the landscape in the states looking at partisan competitiveness. Using our unique data analysis, we’ve grouped Republican-held legislatures in “purple states” into six categories:

Likely Democratic

This chamber is held by Republicans, but likely to flip due to the high number of winnable districts.

Minnesota Senate

Democrats need to flip two seats, and there are at least four seats in the Senate that lean Democratic. As a result of this, we think Democrats are well-poised to win complete control of Minnesota at the state level. Democrats’ success in the House in 2018, where they won an astounding 18 seats, further suggests that Democrats can make big things happen in Minnesota. The downside risk in the state is the trend away from Democrats in traditionally blue rural areas, like the Iron Range. Democrats could lose two GOP-trending seats in the 2020 cycle.

Lean Democratic

These chambers should flip if Democrats win the highly winnable districts up in 2020, plus a few slightly GOP-leaning districts.

Iowa House

Democrats had a strong performance in the Iowa House in 2018, netting five seats. Democrats only need to flip four more seats to win back the chamber, and there are ten priority districts that Democrats can compete in to win the majority. Five of these districts lean Democratic, and another five lean only slightly Republican. These opportunities, along with Democrats’ two-seat congressional pickup in 2018, make clear that we can win back Iowa. What’s worrisome, though, is the potential lack of attention on Iowa in the general election. We can’t give up on this state if we want to build a nationwide party.

Michigan House

Democrats are in a strong position to flip the Michigan House in 2020. They need to flip four seats to do so, and there is one Democratic-leaning district and three slightly Republican-leaning districts that Democrats can compete in for the majority. For under $1 million, Democrats can make sure these districts have the minimum-necessary funding. In other words, Michigan is one of the most cost-effective places to invest in change in 2020.

Pennsylvania House

Democrats have netted 11 Pennsylvania House seats since 2016. In 2018, Democrats need to flip nine more seats to take the majority, and there are 15 seats that lean Democratic and slightly Republican that Democrats can win to flip the chamber. Winning in Pennsylvania will depend not only on continued overtaking of Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, but also on making gains in places like Erie, the Lehigh Valley, and the outskirts of Pittsburgh. This broader geographic landscape may create some challenges for Democrats, but if they can marshal the resources, there is no doubt that the right sort of districts are out there to win.

Beatable Supermajority

While a Democratic majority is out of reach in 2020, in these chambers the seats are there for Democrats to beat a GOP supermajority.

Kansas Senate

Democrats need to flip three seats to break the supermajority in the Kansas Senate. There are two seats that lean Democratic and four seats that lean slightly Republican that Democrats can compete in to do so. There is something big afoot in Kansas. Democrats won the Governorship in 2018, picked up a congressional seat, and almost won a second. A highly competitive Senate election is expected this November. Breaking the Kansas supermajority would give Democrats significant leverage in policymaking, creating a real opportunity to expand Medicaid. Medicaid expansion in Kansas would provide 150,000 people with affordable health care.

Kansas House

Democrats need to flip one seat to break the supermajority in the Kansas House. There are two seats that lean Democratic and four seats that lean slightly Republican that Democrats can compete in to do so. Kansas state legislative races are some of the cheapest in the country ($20-$40,000 can fully fund a campaign), so one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives and provide people with health care is to invest in Kansas in 2020.

Lean Republican

These chambers can flip if Democrats win not only the most winnable districts, but a reasonable number of challenging districts as well. Unfortunately, these chambers (and Likely Republican chambers) predominate in 2020.

Arizona Senate

Arizona is a rapidly changing state and 2018 federal election results point to real opportunities for Democrats. The reasons for optimism in Arizona are the narrow two-seat GOP majority and the relatively inexpensive cost of races in the state. The challenge comes from just how conservative the few districts that Democrats need to win are, most with a Republican lean between R+5 and R+10. While the winnable districts tilt red, Democrats came within 4,000 votes, representing less than 1% of all votes cast, of flipping the chamber in 2018.

Arizona House

Democrats made strong progress in the Arizona House in 2018, flipping four seats. While the remaining seats lean Republican, Democrats had several close losses in 2018 and the relatively inexpensive cost of races in the state means a smaller investment will go a long way. Where Democrats fell short in 2018, more effective strategies to turn out and persuade voters are required.

In both chambers, Arizona represents what will be one of the most interesting tests of 2020. It is a state getting substantial national attention as it is shifting rapidly purple. Between the Senate and the House, there are only five seats to win. Since those seats lean decently Republican, big shifts and smart strategy will be needed to claim them.

Iowa Senate

In 2018, Democrats saw a two-seat net loss in the Iowa Senate. Half of the Senate will be up in 2020, and Democrats need to flip eight seats to win the majority. Even with only half of the Senate on the ballot, Democrats have nine priority seats they can compete in for the majority. Senate races in Iowa are relatively inexpensive, but too many 2018 candidates did not meet the minimum funding threshold. The major question for the Iowa Senate in 2020 will be whether it can get the attention it deserves. Many are writing off Iowa as a competitive general election state and most in and out of state groups are focused on the House. The opportunities in the Senate merit similar focus.

Pennsylvania Senate

Democrats have flipped six Pennsylvania Senate seats since 2016. In 2018, half of the Senate will be on the ballot, and there are five somewhat challenging seats that Democrats can flip. Pennsylvania Senate races are some of the most expensive races, but the investment is needed to make sure candidates in these districts can run campaigns that can win. With the defection of one Democratic senator to the Republicans, the path for Democrats gets even harder. However, successfully winning the Senate over two cycles depends on good gains in 2020.

Texas House

The Texas House has some of the most Republican LDI scores that make their way into our target list. Why is that? Fueled by a strong top of the ticket and rapidly changing demographics, Democrats picked up a whopping 12 seats in the Texas House in 2018. In 2020, Democrats need to flip an additional nine seats to flip the chamber. We have identified 12 competitive seats, including nine that Beto won in 2018, that have rather negative LDIs but the right (or left) shifting demographics. Candidates can be competitive with a $250,000 raise and there is a lot of attention, as always of late, on Texas. We think this is a year that the Texas hype can be met by the outcome. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if these races prove harder to win than initially thought. Galvanizing white suburban and Hispanic voters to turn out for state legislative races in the lowest-turnout large state in the country will remain an important, but difficult, challenge.

Likely Republican

Barring some big upsets, these chambers should remain firmly in Republican hands. But, we believe an outside path exists for Democrats to win the majority.

Florida House

Democrats need to win 14 districts to take the Florida House. We’ve been excited by the amount of attention that different liberal groups have been paying to the House in 2020. In our opinion, Florida saw some of the worst misses in 2018 because of inadequate funding. That said, people need to come into the chamber with eyes wide open. Ten of the 17 winnable seats lean Republican by 5 to 10 points.

Montana House

In Montana, we need to flip nine seats and, if some pretty GOP-leaning seats were to come through, we might be able to snag those seats. Doing so would come down to exceptionally strong Democratic performance at the top of the ticket and some smart campaigns in the very low cost, but highly regulated, Montana political environment. It is worth a look. Montana is a growing state likely to get a second (and potentially competitive) congressional district in 2020. It is a small state that sends Democrats to Washington. We should be investing here.

North Carolina Senate

Like Georgia, North Carolina is a state getting broad attention. Even with new court-ordered district maps, we think that there are fewer competitive seats than the five seats they need in the Senate to gain control. However, the North Carolina Democratic Party has shown great leadership since 2018, helping to flip six Senate seats last cycle, so there is reason to believe big gains could be possible.

North Carolina House

We don’t think there will be six winnable seats for Democrats in 2020, but we do think that Democrats have a strong shot to get within 1-2 seats of a majority. Plus, there is little that would be sweeter than beating the North Carolina GOP after their efforts to enact ultraconservative, anti-democratic policies during their time in office. That alone makes it worth serious investment in the North Carolina House.

Wisconsin House

When people complain to us about Republican gerrymandering preventing opportunities, we point to the hundreds of winnable districts that are still out there that helped us take over in places like Virginia. In Wisconsin, however, Republicans have built quite an effective gerrymander. Republicans have won a supermajority of seats previously while losing the statewide popular vote. While Democrats must win 14 of these challenging seats to gain a majority, we see an outside path through 18 seats. Few others do, so we’ll need substantial support in making big gains in Wisconsin this year.

Safe Republican

While we expect these chambers to remain in Republican control, Democrats can make significant gains to build toward winning a majority in 2022. We’ll focus on a few chambers where we expect to be most engaged in 2020.

Florida Senate

Democrats need to pick up four seats to flip the Florida Senate. Of the seats up in 2020, we only see two that could be winnable. These seats, which require about $1 million each, are pricey, but essential for changing Florida over two cycles.

Georgia Senate

Because of the close 2018 gubernatorial election and big swings to Democrats in the Atlanta suburbs, there is a lot of energy around Georgia in Democratic circles. We think that major change at the state level will be a challenge. Of the eight Senate seats that Democrats would need to win to take control there, we think that there are only two GOP-leaning seats that could be on the table for Democrats. Let’s win them and build for the future.

Georgia House

Similar to the situation in the Senate, the interest in the Georgia House is high, but the districts are a major challenge. Democrats need to pick up 16 seats. Of the 12 that are winnable, half of them lean Republican by 5 to 10 points. With the rapidly shifting dynamics in the state, some of these districts could become competitive and could help Democrats have a big night in November with the right resources.

Montana Senate

Montana is perhaps a somewhat unexpected focus of our list. However, statewide Democrats like Steve Bullock and Jon Tester, as well as legislators, have been successful. Democrats seem to have a shot at four districts, though six would be needed to flip the state. Building a stronger minority could support a Democratic governor should we retain the seat in 2020.

Ohio Senate

While the path for Democrats is challenging in Ohio, we think it is too early to give up hope on the Buckeye State, which voted for Obama twice. The results in the State Senate were disappointing in 2018 and, as a result, it will take at least two cycles to win the needed eight seats in the Senate. We can start with three highly winnable seats across the state.

Ohio House

The Ohio House has more opportunities than the Senate, with nine winnable seats in 2020. Still, while that won’t be enough to take the 12 seats that Democrats need to win the House, it can build momentum for redefining how Democrats can win in this crucial state. What will make things more challenging is the lack of attention that Ohio is receiving. It is not seen as a 2020 presidential priority and other state legislative groups are not going to be heavily involved. We’ll need help getting candidates the resources that they need.

West Virginia Senate

Despite the tectonic shifts that have happened in West Virginia over the past two decades, Democrats have shown life at the state legislative level. In the Senate in 2018, Democrats netted two seats. Democrats need four seats to take the chamber. We only see three seats that seem reasonably winnable this year, with only half of the seats on the ballot. Whether Democrats can make these gains depends on whether Democrats can continue to make state-level gains even as Trump is likely to carry the state by something on the order of 40 points.

Wisconsin Senate

Democrats are extremely close in the Wisconsin Senate, needing to pick up only three seats to take back the majority. However, the landscape is very difficult, and we can see only two reasonably winnable districts. Western Wisconsin, often noted as one of the swingiest regions in the country, will be pretty key to efforts in the Senate and to win statewide for the Presidency.

What should we make of these opportunities, summarized in the table below? That it’s going to take something special to win in 2020. We’ve recently heard a lot of news that Democrats are making new investments in the states. These efforts help, but without the resources being spent in the right way, they aren’t going to overcome the substantial partisan advantage that Republicans have in most of these purple states. In our upcoming pieces, we’ll talk about what that “right way” looks like.

Table 1. The Purple State Landscape in 2020

What can you do right now to make a difference? Make a donation to our 2020 Fund, where 100% of your donation will go to the eventual Democratic nominees in districts we can win in these states. Then, sign up for our email list to be the first to know when we make endorsements and how you can support these candidates.

Originally posted on EveryDistrict. Re-posted with permission.


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At EveryDistrict, we believe that Democrats can run competitive campaigns in every district at every level. We aim to reverse the losses of recent years by helping more Democrats in more places run for office.

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