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Inside Democrats' fight to break the GOP lock on state legislatures

Founded in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, groups like Flippable, Future Now, and Sister District, to name a few, use crowdfunding-style models to try to expand candidates’ visibility.

by Carter Sherman
Oct 31 2018, 7:05pm

For nearly a decade, Republicans have held a “trifecta” in Arizona, where the party rules both sides of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Christine Marsh, for one, is sick of it.

“We need some balance down there,” said Marsh, Arizona’s 2016 teacher of the year and the Democratic candidate for the state’s 28th Legislative District. “That then will force these important discussions with all three branches, with the governor, with both chambers. All three of them will actually have to negotiate and compromise with each other. So I think it will allow some of the best ideas to bubble forth which, right now, is not happening.”

Marsh is one of 83 Democrats, including 55 non-incumbents, running for state legislative office in Arizona this year. That’s the largest class of candidates the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has seen in two decades, and it’s not an anomaly.

After six consecutive election cycles where Republicans outnumbered Democrats in state legislative races, 5,349 Democrats are running for state legislatures across the country this year, the Washington Post reported. Republicans, however, are running only 4,741 candidates.

As the heralded “blue wave” threatens to flood the U.S. House with Democrats, liberal groups across the country are trying to ensure it also crashes into state legislatures. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the national party arm dedicated to state races, has raised a record-breaking $30 million so far in this election cycle. But liberal candidates are also getting help from a number of grassroots organizations. Founded in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, groups like Flippable, Future Now, and Sister District, to name a few, use crowdfunding-style models to try to expand candidates’ visibility, volunteers, and fundraising well beyond their districts’ borders.

With their new strategy, Democrats are playing catch-up to Republicans, who’ve long devoted national resources and huge sums to securing state legislature seats. The GOP currently controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion in 25 states, including Arizona. Democrats have only eight of those trifectas.

“We have not typically been the party of states’ rights and so I think, ideologically, we tend to believe that a lot of our priorities should be passed at the federal level,” said Catherine Vaughan, who co-founded Flippable, a political action committee that endorses state legislative candidates and provides an online platform to crowdfund their races. Both Flippable and Future Now have endorsed Marsh.

“We’re getting smarter, as we no longer see the federal government as safeguarding our interests,” Vaughan added.

Using metrics like whether a district voted for Hillary Clinton, these organizations strategically pick state races to support, primarily in legislative chambers that they believe could turn blue. The groups then pull in dollars or volunteers to build up candidates’ profiles nationally and preach about the importance of state legislative races, often to Democrats who live in safely blue areas but may want to act after Trump’s election.

“Could we lose some seats? We could lose some seats. Are we losing majorities? Not as many as the Democrats would hope tobe able to pick up this cycle."

For example, Future Now Fund has created what it calls “giving circles”: Groups of out-of-state Democratic donors who give to one state legislature and scour their personal networks for other potential donors. Its fundraising arm, Future Fund Now, has now poured $550,000 into Arizona, making the group the second-biggest funder in the state’s legislative races. In fact, Future Now Fund is one of the top three funders in the other four states where the organization has focused its efforts: Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

If Democrats want to break the trifecta in Arizona, they’ll need to flip either three seats in the state Senate or six in the House (or win the governorship, which is unlikely). Although Arizona is traditionally ruby-red, liberal activists swear that blue pockets are increasingly dotting the state, thanks to the nationwide rise of liberal-leaning young voters and voters of color. Louis Jacobson, who handicaps state legislative races for Governing Magazine, considers Arizona’s Senate to be “lean Republican” and thus competitive.

But David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a nationwide group that tutors Republicans on strategy and communication, isn’t worried about Democrats taking back Arizona. Republicans, he said, can run on a record of results.

“Our candidates are able to campaign effectively on what we have done to address the voters,” he said. “What voters want is most economic and personal security. And on that track record, we have a very impressive set of accomplishments to be able to show voters.”

Conservatives are also still outspending liberals by more than five to one in races for several crucial state legislatures this year, including Arizona, Vox reported Tuesday.

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Whatever happens in Arizona, Democrats could flip up to 14 chambers in November, Jacobson predicts. But even if the party manages to accomplish that, 51 legislative chambers — a majority of the country’s 99 — would still remain under Republican control. (Nebraska’s state legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan, and two other states are evenly split between parties.)

“Could we lose some seats? We could lose some seats. Are we losing majorities? Not as many as the Democrats would hope to be able to pick up this cycle,” Avella said. “Our majorities are so large that while we could see ourselves going from super majority to majorities, we’re not gonna go from super majorities to minorities.”

During the Obama White House, Republicans took control of almost 1,000 state legislative seats, according to an analysis from the Hill. That wasn’t an accident. Both grassroots Tea Partiers and national GOP caucuses realized that, as federal policy on issues like health care seeped out to the states, state legislative chambers could counter President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Now, under Trump, state legislatures’ powers will likely only metastasize. Not only does his administration advocate for limited federal government, but Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court may once again give states total control over issues like abortion access.

Plus, more than 800 state legislators elected this year will also play a role in redistricting, which is controlled at the state level. That once-a-decade process is scheduled for 2021 and could rewrite voting district boundaries to tip the scale in favor of Democratic or Republican victory. (Arizona, however, uses an independent commission to draw districts, instead of through legislation like many other states.)

That potential pushed Adam Pritzker — CEO of the brand-building company Assembled Brands and grandson of the co-founder of the Hyatt hotel chain — to help start Future Now. Before the 2016 elections, he’d never given to political causes.

“That idea really of starting with something small and planting a lot of seeds really resonated with me,” Pritzker told VICE News. “While I know that the president and Congress really control these news cycles, I think it’s important to remember that states are the places where policies are created around voting rights.”

The start-up model of Future Now and its compatriots rely on one important fact about state legislatures: They’re the cheap seats, relatively speaking. The cost of races for the U.S. House and Senate can easily climb into the millions, but a state legislative campaign is often between $100,000 and $150,000.

“It’s often cheaper to create an entire legislative chamber than to win a single congressional seat,” said Alyssa Cass, Future Now’s director of politics and communication. Once a legislature chamber is flipped, “that means Medicaid expansion. That means pushing back against intrusive voter suppression acts. It means pushing for livable wages.”

With Future Now and Flippable’s support, Marsh, the candidate for the Arizona state Senate, said she was able to run more digital ads and an additional mailer; she’s raised a total of about $187,000, compared to her opponent state Sen. Kate Brophy McGee’s nearly $446,000. Their race is on track to become one of the most expensive races in Arizona legislative history, according to the Arizona Mirror. (Brophy McGee didn’t return a VICE News request for comment about her campaign.)

“From an enthusiasm point of view, it feels less lonely running. You know that there’s support from around the country,” Marsh said. “It just feels more comforting.”

Cover image: Christine Marsh, Arizona’s 2016 teacher of the year and the Democratic candidate for the state’s 28th Legislative District, stands on a bridge in her district. (Photo courtesy of Christine Marsh)