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Democrats Say They Are Serious About State Elections. But Are They Too Late?



“It feels very much like climbing uphill, pushing a rock while your arms are melting,” said Amanda Litman of the liberal group Run for Something, which recruits young people to run for state and local office.

Gaby Goldstein, co-founder of Sister District, a grass-roots organization that supports progressive candidates in state legislative races, noted that conservatives have mobilized around state politics for decades. “I always say that Democrats are tardy to the party,” she said.

The Democratic Party’s belated interest in lower-tier races grew out of its bruising experience in 2010, when Republicans rode an anti-Obama backlash to oust hundreds of Democratic incumbents nationwide. Spending just $30 million, Republicans flipped 680 state legislative seats and 20 chambers, a stunning victory that put them in position to redraw election maps and entrench their hold over those states — and their congressional delegations — for a decade.

“Democrats were frankly unprepared during that cycle,” said Kelly Ward Burton, who at the time was running House Democrats’ campaign committee. Now the president of Mr. Holder’s redistricting committee, Ms. Burton has been working closely with several Democratic campaign groups in hopes of a different outcome from the current round of redistricting.


Part hardball politics and part good-government activism, the groups’ strategy has been to break up G.O.P. “trifectas” where possible — reducing the number of states where Republicans enjoy full control of the redistricting process because they hold the governorship and majorities in both legislative chambers. They also ask candidates for state and federal offices to pledge support for “fair redistricting that ends map manipulation and creates truly representative districts,” an aspiration that is sometimes in tension with more partisan goals.

Midway through the current redistricting brawl, the results of those Democratic efforts are mixed.

The long-troubled Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee became a force under new leadership in 2016, setting up the party to take six chambers in the 2018 midterm elections. Since 2017, Democrats have flipped 10 governor’s offices, including in the battlegrounds of Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and picked up seven state Supreme Court seats. Five states have passed nonpartisan redistricting reforms, putting map-drawing in the hands of independent commissions.

But the blue wave that Democrats were counting on in 2020 never washed ashore. Although Democratic groups spent record amounts trying to win back G.O.P.-held statehouses, their party ended last year worse off, losing both chambers in New Hampshire. As a result, Republicans not only kept control of prizes like the Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin legislatures, but they also have retained the power to draw maps for 187 congressional districts, while Democrats control the fate of just 75.

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