Terry, a Democratic candidate for the state legislature in
Texas, meets with supporters during a campaign event in
Dallas on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. Terry has already
raised $235,000 as Democratic donors pour money into
legislative races nationwide in hopes of flipping
statehouse chambers in 2020.
AUSTIN, Texas — Democrats
still shaken by the 2010 tea party wave that netted Republicans
six governors' offices, flipped 21 statehouse chambers and drove
nearly 700 Democratic state legislators from office are mounting
a comeback, pouring millions of dollars into state level races.
In a longtime Republican district
covering a wealthy enclave of Dallas, Democratic challenger
Shawn Terry has raised $235,000, an eye-popping amount for a
statehouse race that's more than a year away. In Virginia, where
the GOP holds a slim majority, Democrats have outraised
Republicans for the first time in years. Democrats are even
putting some money in deeply Republican Louisiana.
The cash deluge shows how the
consequences of next year's elections run far deeper than
President Donald Trump's political fate. The party that controls
state legislatures will take a leading role in the
once-in-a-decade redistricting process that redraws
congressional maps. Newly empowered Republicans used that
process to their favor following the tea party victories, and
Democrats want to use the same playbook.
"There is, especially for
this cycle, a very strong focus on redistricting," Terry
The stakes are particularly high
following a recent Supreme Court ruling that decided federal
courts have no business policing political boundary disputes in
many cases. The ruling doesn't apply to districts gerrymandered
along racial lines but otherwise gives states wide latitude to
draw maps with little concern for an eventual judicial rebuke.
"Everybody knows everything
is at stake," said Stephanie Schriock, president of the
group EMILY's List, which recruits and trains women to run for
office and plans to spend $20 million on legislative races.
"We just have to go in and win chambers."
Organizations like EMILY's List,
the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic
Legislative Campaign Committee have seen a sharp increase in
donations, nearing parity with Republicans who almost always
outraise and outspend them, according to an analysis of IRS data
by The Associated Press.
And Democratic donors who gave
little to nothing to down-ballot races in the past are cutting
large checks to groups focused on state races, the AP's analysis
shows. Among them are billionaire George Soros (at least $5.4
million), hedge fund billionaire Donald Sussman (at least $4.8
million) and billionaire investor and entrepreneur Fred Eychaner
(at least $4.2 million).
The numbers don't take into
account the activities of nonprofit "dark money"
groups that both Republicans and Democrats operate. They won't
have to disclose their finances until next year at the earliest.
But already the money is
filtering out to the states.
Priorities USA, the largest
Democratic outside group, and EMILY's List recently announced
they would spend $600,000 on voter mobilization for Virginia's
fall elections. For the first time, the Democratic opposition
research group American Bridge is digging into the pasts of
Republican statehouse candidates.
And the DLCC, which is
spearheading efforts in Virginia, says it has collected $9
million since the 2018 midterm elections, an off-year record,
and is on pace to reach its $50 million fundraising goal for the
New groups that are focused on
state races have sprung up, including the National Democratic
Redistricting Committee, which is led by former Attorney General
Eric Holder and endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
It all stems from what Democrats
describe as a nearly traumatizing experience in 2010 when,
reveling in the early days of the Obama administration, they
failed to organize at the state level. Democratic strategist
Jessica Post remembers being outside a bar in Pennsylvania's
capital city of Harrisburg when she got word of just how
thoroughly her party was rejected.
"After curling up on the
sidewalk, I walked back into the bar, popped open a Budweiser
and said to myself, 'If I have anything to do with this, we will
not get outclassed in 2020 by the Republicans,'" said Post,
who now leads the DLCC and is tasked with reclaiming lost
The new attention Democrats are
paying to down-ballot races is a break from the past, when the
White House and Congress were the primary focus. Former Virginia
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said a breakthrough came in 2016 when he,
then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other party
officials gathered top Democratic donors in a Philadelphia hotel
ballroom to forcefully make the case and unveil a new state
level fundraising initiative.
"People finally understand
that you just can't play every four years in the presidential,
you have to play in these state races," said McAuliffe, a
top Democratic fundraiser. "You could have a great wave in
Congress, but if you have all these gerrymandered districts, I
don't care how much money you have."
Next year's elections will still
play out under the maps that Republicans drew after the 2010
campaign. But Democrats are hoping that the money they're
investing in state races, higher turnout in a presidential
election year and frustration with Trump, particularly in the
suburbs, could give them the lift they need.
In Texas, for instance, Democrats
are nine seats away from flipping the House, which would give
them a sliver of power after nearly a quarter-century of
political irrelevance. A Democratic majority in the House would
deny the GOP the chance to write congressional maps on their
The Minnesota Senate is one seat
away from flipping from red to blue, while the Michigan House is
four seats away, according to figures from the National
Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania Democrats need
nine seats to control the House and five to take the Senate. In
Florida, Democrats are four seats from power in the Senate,
while control of the Wisconsin Senate hangs by three. In North
Carolina, Democrats could take the Senate by winning five seats,
while the House would require them to flip six.
Republicans are taking the threat
seriously. Citing multiple studies, they say the outcomes of 50
legislative races across the U.S. could be the difference
between a 36-seat Republican congressional majority and a
massive 110-seat Democratic edge.
Austin Chambers, president of the
Republican State Leadership Committee, said his organization
will need to raise more than it ever has, though he declined to
state a fundraising goal. His group was narrowly edged by DLCC
in the first half of 2019, though Chambers said he expects they
will ultimately outraise Democrats.
"It is serious as a heart
attack, and we've got to do everything we can to prepare for
it," he said.