Democrats and Republicans are raising millions, preparing to battle for GOP-controlled state legislative majorities before a crucial, once-in-a-decade redistricting year in 2021.
So far in the 2020 election cycle, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Republican State Leadership Committee have raised $16.7 and $17.3 million, respectively, according to their reports to the IRS.
The DLCC is launching a $50 million “Flip Everything” campaign in preparation for the redistricting fight in key state legislative races, hoping to raise more money than ever before.
The committee is targeting states with Republican-controlled state legislatures in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Ohio. State legislatures in those states are in charge of redrawing congressional lines based on the new 2020 census data. Democrats appear to have a growing number of voters in urban and suburban areas in those targeted states.
Republicans are putting extra focus on North Carolina after state courts threw out maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The state has been the focus of gerrymandering battles in the past decade, and is expected to gain a U.S. House seat after the census.
After pouring close to $1 million in Texas’ special election last month, Democrats still lost the state legislative by a 16-point margin to the Texas GOP.
The last time Democrats had this chance in 2010, Republicans outspent their competitors by more than $20 million to win close to 700 seats in state legislatures nationwide and redraw congressional boundaries that benefited the party for the last 10 years.
The party that draws the new lines often aims to improve their political chances, regardless of the political environment — changing redistricting to partisan gerrymandering, according to Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“No matter what the voters are doing, no matter how the electorate is trending in any particular year, the outcome is pre-decided, and leaves the party that’s in control of redistricting in control,” Rudensky said.
In the 2010 election cycle, the DLCC spent $10.9 million compared with the RSLC’s $31.7 million. Both groups were supported by big-dollar donors, but the conservative committee received several million-dollar contributions. The DLCC’s largest contribution that year was $950,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The RSLC received million-dollar donations from organizations including Altria Group, American Crossroads and American Justice Partnership. Their largest donation from that cycle was $3.9 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike in the past decade, federal courts can’t settle gerrymandering legal challenges. The Supreme Court ruled last year that federal courts don’t have the power to rule on partisan gerrymandering.
“So to whatever small extent parties have been deterred from sort of extreme aggressiveness by the threat of court intervention, that deterrent effect is gone now,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard University law professor.
Although the party’s committees are raising similar numbers, Democrats are getting additional fundraising help from liberal groups created with the sole purpose of supporting local Democrats running for state legislative seats.
Democrats are also getting help from billionaire presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Bloomberg’s outside group Gun Safety Action Fund and Steyer’s outside group NextGen America announced that they would spend more than $5.5 million combined for state-level elections in November. Bloomberg’s outside group Everytown for Gun Safety poured $2.5 million into Virginia’s state legislature election last year where Democrats flipped three seats.
Republicans have at least one outside group helping in the fundraising race for its “Right Lines 2020” campaign. The National Republican Redistricting Trust started fundraising for its goal of $35 million in 2017.
Given the influence at stake, pouring big money into these state legislative races isn’t surprising to Christopher Warshaw, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
“I think it makes a lot of sense that the national parties are spending a lot of money on the state legislative races,” Warshaw said. “Both because it has immediate effect on policy as well as longer-term effects on elections.”
Republicans run the risk of under investing compared to their liberal competitors in these races, something the RSLC acknowledged in a Roll Call article.
“Oftentimes we say, ‘it seems kind of myopic how much money flows into the election,’” Warshaw said. “But I think, in this case, a couple state legislative seats are going to determine the maps for a decade. To me, if anything, there’s too little money flowing into these races.”
Although they might be outspent in these races, Republicans have garnered support from the White House. Vice President Mike Pence is considering adding statehouse races to his campaign schedule, according to POLITICO.
“An important thing to get across is just how all of these democracy issues, broadly speaking, are interconnected,” Rudensky said. “Whether it’s about access to the ballots, how money gets spent to influence the outcome of elections, how the lines that shape our representatives and who is able to win — all of these things are inextricably linked.”
Currently, 21 states have adopted some sort of redistricting reform such as enacting a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission to draw lines rather than leaving it to individual parties.