National political parties are targeting a handful of competitive state legislative chambers this year, where the majority parties can draw favorable district lines -- with the potential for gerrymandering -- after the 2020 census.
The state legislative campaign arms of both parties said wins in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin would help win congressional majorities for the next decade. Those six states send a total of 116 representatives to the U.S. House -- more than a quarter of the entire voting body. Republicans outnumber Democrats in their combined delegations, 69-46, with one vacancy in Wisconsin.
Both chambers of the legislature in all six states are now held by Republicans, and all empower their legislatures to draw congressional district lines.
The first election cycle of a decade carries added importance because the winners will use the new census to draw district lines, which generally stay in place for 10 years. By percentage, the closest chamber to flipping is the Pennsylvania House, where Democrats would need to win 4.9% of seats now vacant or held by Republicans for a majority. The greatest gap is in the Georgia Senate, where Democrats would have to flip 14.3% of all seats.
Matt Harringer, a spokesman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on state legislatures, said the party was caught off-guard in the 2010 cycle, when Republicans spent heavily in state races and netted close to 700 seats nationwide.
Learning from that cycle, the DLCC and allied groups are spending money and attention on state races this year, which should give the party a better chance of competing in 2020. So too should the presidential election, which tends to increase Democratic turnout, Harringer said.
"It's a once-in-a-two-decade thing," he said. "Because it's only every other census that we get it lined up with a presidential year."
The DLCC said on Jan. 16 it would spend $50 million on what it called its "Flip Everything" campaign. And at least one Democrat-aligned group, Swing Left, is also spending in state legislative races, choosing targets based on redistricting.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, the DLCC's counterpart, has acknowledged it likely will be at a funding disadvantage this cycle, but it has pledged to prioritize races in Ohio, as well as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Losses in 42 races in those seven states would affect 136 congressional races, the group said.
The limited target list comes as a growing movement to take the line-drawing process away from politicians has picked up steam. Control over the Arizona state Legislature is in play, but the state adopted an independent commission for redistricting in 2000. Similarly, Pennsylvania, New York and several other states have adopted some form of a line-drawing commission.