Continuing to Fight for Control in the Purple States

Democrats entered 2020 with big hopes to flip state legislative chambers and take hold of this decade’s redistricting. Instead, the GOP remains in control of drawing the lines in important battleground states.

With the 2020 elections ending in disappointment for legislative candidates, Democrats continue to lag in control of the states. Democrats control 18 of the 50 state senates and 19 of the 49 state houses.

There are several fundamental failures of the Democratic approach to the states that will need to be overcome to flip the remaining competitive states where Democrats can gain state legislative control in the short term.

Chart. Partisan Control of State Senates

Chart. Partisan Control of State Houses

Based on our experience working with over 200 candidates in twelve of the most competitive states across the country, we believe that Democrats can reform their approach to flipping state legislative chambers with a more strategic plan for funding competitive districts and a better understanding of the data gaps and how to fix them.

Why we underperformed

Five national trends fundamentally shaped the states in favor of Republicans in 2020:

1. Trump-driven turnout swamped in must-win state legislative districts.

2020 was a high turnout election for both parties. But the geographic concentration of those votes spelled trouble for Democratic legislative candidates across the country.

For example, in Texas HD 67, where our endorsed candidate lost 48%-52%, the big GOP turnout swamped any chance of a Democratic victory. The Democrat won enough votes to overcome even a more reasonable turnout increase, getting nearly 4,000 votes more than the GOP incumbent did in an 18-point blowout in the last presidential cycle. The final push of GOP vote meant it did not matter.

Table. The Shifts in Texas HD 67

Party2020 Votes (%)Change in Party Votes from 2016 (%)
Republican48,664 (52%)7,224 (17%)
Democrat45,289 (48%)16,253 (56%)

The Trump effect was particularly meaningful, not surprisingly, in the districts with large non-college white populations, as shown later on in this section.

2. The suburban Biden coalition didn’t deliver votes to down ballot Democrats.

In the lead-up to the election, the polls indicated cratering numbers for Republicans among suburban voters, which were supposed to bring big gains for down ballot Democrats. That prediction didn’t pan out in two ways.

First, in some of the districts that had already flipped to Hillary in 2016, Republicans held on. One of the most glaring examples of this sort of disappointment was in Pennsylvania’s HD 151.

In Montgomery County, which Biden won with 62% of the vote, the Democrat lost by six points in a district that Biden will have carried by 20.

The next round of suburban district, which voted Trump in 2016, also did not turn. At the congressional level, that was supposed to include Indiana’s 5th or Missouri’s 2nd, both places where Republicans ended up winning, though by smaller margins than before.

The same trends occurred in most outer-ring suburban districts in the state legislatures. Without a clear path in either type of next-on-the-list suburban district, Democrats had limited opportunities for gains.

3. The Biden coalition was geographically narrow.

State legislative candidates depend in large part on the coattails of the top of the ticket. Sometimes, strong and exciting candidates at the local level can power a candidate in a higher office to success.

We saw these reverse coattails in 2017 in Virginia where grassroots activism swept 15 Democratic legislative candidates into office and carried with them the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

In 2020, Biden’s electoral coalition was too geographically narrow to benefit many candidates in Republican-leaning legislative seats.

For example, in Wisconsin Biden only carried 37 of the 99 Assembly districts. Obama had carried 43 in 2012 and Senator Tammy Baldwin carried 55 in 2018 (Democrats competed under the same, gerrymandered map in all three cycles).

Across the Midwest, areas that Obama had won once or even twice, like Northeast Iowa, went convincingly for Trump, keeping majorities out of our hands.

4. Democratic performance with Hispanic voters hurt in Florida and Texas.

Biden underperformed among Hispanic voters fairly consistently. In the state legislative world, Democrats failed to make meaningful gains in the most Hispanic districts in Arizona, Florida, or Texas, across both traditionally Mexican and traditionally Cuban populations.

Here are some outcomes in six of the most Hispanic districts in those states that were held by GOP legislators heading into the 2020 election.

Table. Democratic Performance in Hispanic State Legislative Districts

District2020 Result (D-R)Hispanic Percentage
TX HD 12146%-54%26%
TX HD 13848%-52%24%
FL HD 11543%-57%67%
FL HD 10546%-54%64%
FL SD 3943%-55%63%
AZ SD 841%-59%23%

While a number of factors kept us out of the winner’s circle in these districts, persistent Democratic underperformance in heavily Hispanic areas bolstered Republican control of these three states.

5. The state legislative realignment continued, dropping unsuspecting incumbents in what seemed like defensible seats.

The Trump surge affected our existing Democratic incumbents in two ways. Even after bad election cycles in 2010 and 2014, Democrats still held on to state legislative seats that leaned Republican. While we worried about these seats early in the cycle, most polling indicated that Democrats would hold them.

That polling, like everything else this cycle, was wrong. Entering the cycle, there were just over 200 Democratic-held seats with Republican leans. Democrats saw a net loss of over 175 seats in 2019 and 2020, with losses in some states still being calculated.

In the North Carolina House of Representatives, we saw some of the biggest losses of such districts in a purple state, as shown below.

Table. Democratic Incumbent Losses in North Carolina

DistrictLean2020 Result (D-R)
NC HD 37R+447%-50%
NC HD 43R+348%-52%
NC HD 66R+1540%-60%
NC HD 93R+947%-53%
NC HD 98R+349%-51%
NC HD 119R+846%-54%

The trends that seemed to keep the race out of Biden’s reach in some key states and led to a smaller US House majority were felt acutely in the state legislative space. That spelled disaster for Democrats across the country.

Why was the underperformance so acutely felt in the states? We spell out the reasons below.

Not investing for the long term

Even with the renewed interest in legislative races in 2017 and 2018, Democrats continued to lag behind Republicans in fundraising.

In 2018, for example, EveryDistrict’s endorsed candidates running in the most competitive state legislative districts across the country who lost their races raised, on average, $250,000 less than their GOP opponents. This discrepancy was the latest in a long history of Republicans outflanking Democrats in the states.

That changed starting in 2019 with House and Senate races in Virginia and continued into 2020 in states like Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina.

We outlined in our 2019 Purple States Report the minimum amount that candidates in battleground states needed to raise to be competitive. Legislative candidates in target districts (generally speaking) hit and exceeded that minimum recommended amount and had the funding they needed to run strong campaigns.

EveryDistrict’s 2020 post-election campaign survey confirmed that 2020 legislative campaigns ran much more professionalized operations, hiring more experienced staff, implementing comprehensive communications plans, and developing robust voter contact operations, despite the challenges of COVID-19.

But while Democratic donors rallied around the opportunities to flip chambers in those states, candidates in states without a clear-cut path to the majority struggled to attract the same national attention.

For example, Wisconsin in 2020 was a bright spot with two pickups in the State Assembly. But, other winnable districts in the Milwaukee suburbs did not see national attention until the final weeks of the campaign, and correspondingly multiple districts were decided by close margins in Republicans’ favor.

Perhaps the most troubling inattention to long-term power building occurs after November. At the start of an off-year, even states that saw ample funding in 2020 have had to cut their caucus staffs as money and attention turn elsewhere.

If Democrats are going to make substantial legislative gains in 2021 and beyond, we have to invest in a broader map and continue to invest in the infrastructure to make those gains happen in the off-years.

Not investing at the right time

While more money has finally started to make its way to the state legislative level, the resources have come too late for campaigns to invest in the sort of long-term organizing necessary to win GOP-leaning districts.

After the 2020 elections, we evaluated the timing of resources to competitive Democratic candidates in five states that were top legislative chamber flip priorities for Democrats in 2020.

What was the result? Resources tended to come only around Labor Day, when hardcore campaigning typically kicks off.

Several decades after EMILY’s List pioneered the idea nationally, Democrats need to heed the same lesson and make investments earlier.

Click through the below graphs to see average fundraising across these chambers and specific fundraising totals for EveryDistrict-endorsed candidates in these states.

Figure. State Legislative Fundraising in Battleground Chambers in 2020

Too much money in independent expenditures

Many large donors tend to continue to invest in 501(c)(4) groups and “Super PAC” independent expenditure entities, which is known as the “soft” side of the money landscape. These groups can do useful work to engage voters and spread the Democratic message, but we have yet to see them effectively used in the state legislative space.

Moreover, these groups can be counterproductive if they push a message not aligned with the unique narratives driving campaigns in more conservative, must-win districts.

In our conversations with candidates and managers, they repeatedly raise examples of outside ads that delivered a message at odds with, or insufficiently connected to, the effective local message they sought to create.

More Democratic large dollars should go to the “hard” side of the money landscape, including state parties, state caucuses, aligned “hard” side organizations, and the candidates themselves, rather than soft side groups, particularly in states with high campaign contribution limits.

Managing the challenging geography of the states

Despite the increased professionalization of state legislative campaigns in 2020, Democrats have little to show for it in terms of results. Why? The fundamental challenge that presented itself in 2020 in the states was the mismatch between Democrats’ popular vote majority and the districts where we needed to win.

As we explored in our Purple States Report in 2019, over 60% of Democratic must-win districts in the states leaned Republican. The districts were also predominantly white, with large shares of non-college white voters.

Of the 112 priority districts that Democrats needed to win in 2019 and 2020 to flip key legislative chambers, only 21% mirrored the diverse coalition that propelled Joe Biden to a massive nationwide victory.

This separation between our statewide opportunities and the realities in the state legislative space is well represented by the outcomes in Michigan. While both Joe Biden and Gary Peters won statewide, Democrats only snagged two of five winnable House seats and lost two supposedly safe Democratic seats.

The table below shows the demographic picture.

Table. Michigan and the Challenging Geography of the States

Control into 2020GOPGOPGOPDemGOPDemGOP
Historic Partisan LeanR+1D+1R+5D+6D+6D+3R+8
2020 Democratic %51.6%46.5%47.6%49.5%54.1%45.4%47.1%
White %79.6%76.9%81.1%92.3%89.4%92.1%95.0%
Black %2.5%4.0%0.9%2.7%2.5%0.4%0.1%
Hispanic %3.3%2.9%3.5%3.0%3.2%5.1%2.3%
White College %46.3%42.4%51.6%25.6%48.2%32.2%43.4%
White Non-College %33.3%34.5%29.5%66.7%41.1%59.9%51.6%

Many of the hundreds of state legislative districts we need to win look like these. They are very white and, in the case of Democratic-held seats where we are fading like HDs 48 and 96, often have large non-college white populations.

A further indicator of the challenge associated with non-college white voters in the states comes from Iowa and Kansas, two Midwestern states moving in different directions.

The table below compares the historic partisan lean, 2020 result, and non-college white percentage of key 2020 state legislative targets.

Table. Non-College White, Ancestrally Democratic Districts

DistrictLean2020 Result (D-R)Non-College White Percentage
IA SD 8D+048%-52%60%
IA SD 44D+243%-57%58%
IA SD 46D+241%-59%53%
A HD 55D+246%-54%55%
IA HD 91D+543%-57%53%
KS SD 20D+343%-57%42%
KS HD 60D+140%-60%45%

Continued data and tactics gap

The data provided to state legislative candidates, particularly in light of the tremendous Republican bias, is woefully inadequate. Incomplete and unsophisticated data at the local level does not provide for a sufficient understanding of the electorate in state legislative races. The candidates were not ready for the above trends to define their races.

Similarly, the state legislative candidates running in the most critical pink-to-purple districts do not receive the training and tactics to compete in those particular places.

We’ve seen great candidates who understand their local communities and have used that local knowledge successfully. But despite the emergence of more groups focused on training, the specific type of training to help a candidate message to, and turn out and persuade, a GOP-leaning, majority-white district does not exist on a broad scale.

How do we compete better in the Purple States?

Create between-cycle campaign infrastructure

There is often talk in Democratic spaces about creating the necessary “infrastructure.” This infrastructure rarely includes a sufficiently robust state legislative campaign apparatus to hit the ground running by January of an election year.

By tracking redistricting, we can know what districts will matter in the future. We should have our candidates ready for those district environments by funneling ground-level data and tailored resources for each unique environment.

Build out local media to counter the right-wing machine

Part of the increased polarization and nationalization of state legislative elections is the death of local media. In the absence of local sources to explain how right-wing control of the states hurts people, voters are swallowed up in a sea of Fox News, talk radio, and Sinclair local television.

In the Senate section, we outlined why a coordinated national message is key. At the same time, democratic governance requires a reinvestment in the foundational work of local journalists.

Progressive donors need to invest more in locally-based news sources that can convey the stakes on local issues.

Strengthen our union partners

In the Senate section above, we noted the crucial role of the Upper Midwest in our future electoral map. As documented in State Capture by Alex Hertel-Fernandez, right-to-work efforts in states like Wisconsin have cost Democrats electoral power in these critical Midwestern states. Democrats need to adopt policies to strengthen union political power as they take control in purple states.

Invest in candidates and campaigns

Getting more dollars to more candidates earlier will allow them to run more convincing and more professional campaigns.

Understand male, not just female, voters

Throughout this report, we’ve emphasized the role that all voters play in different parts of the Democratic coalition. Because of Democrats’ better margins with women, male voters are overlooked parts of the Democratic strategy. While we are unlikely to win white men in large numbers, doing better in the states depends on performing better with men of all races moving forward.

Strategize to win the districts we need

The roadmap to majorities in some key purple states will still be challenging, even after 2022. The best way to spend non-candidate dollars is to work on persuading and turning out an electorate in these districts that will deliver for Democrats in the future.

What role will EveryDistrict play in winning Purple States?

Build a one-stop shop for understanding the districts, post-redistricting

EveryDistrict’s nationwide interactive map is the only place that Democratic activists can go to understand where there are pickup opportunities in all fifty states.

After redistricting, our platform will continue to serve as this resource, quickly giving the Democratic state legislative movement the information that they need to build investments in districts over multiple cycles.

Invest in districts, not just campaigns

With our understanding of the critical districts, EveryDistrict will expand our footprint in battleground states in 2021 and 2022 by hiring on-the-ground organizers. We will work with state parties and activists to build out the strategies needed to continuously engage with voters and play the long game.

These organizers will be the campaign building blocks that candidates can work from, instead of campaigns having to do all the work to build from scratch every cycle.

Our aggressive fundraising strategy will also get resources to the candidates earlier than ever before.

Test and prove the models for winning the key districts

Over 2021 and 2022, our Win Number program in Virginia and other battleground states will develop better data and tactics for winning in the types of state legislative districts that will determine control of the country over the next twenty years.

We will focus, in particular, on four groups critical to future Democratic success in the states:

  • College-educated suburban voters, particularly male voters;
  • Non-college white voters;
  • Infrequent and non-Democratic Hispanic voters; and
  • Rural Black voters.

Our innovative approach will test the latest findings in election science to identify how we can engage, persuade, and turn out voters in the demographics and geographies that stand in the way of us retaking more states.

Pilot viral news to drive voters away from Republicans

While more substantial investments in local media are needed, part of our work in the states will include strategies to get the right news stories to persuadable voters who need to hear it most.