Thursday, October 22, 2020

Master Debater edition

Thursday, October 15, 2020

How Tarot Can You Go edition

There’s something about hitting the teens that’s scary.

As in days left until the election, I mean.

Not adolescence.

Or literally assaulting teenagers. Please don’t do that.

But we’re a whole 19 days out now, so there’s no time to waste.

The High Priestess: The fact that the election is less than three weeks away means it’s high time I unveil my state legislative chamber flip ratings.

Mostly I’m just going to be talking about the ones I’ve previously discussed as flippable for Dems, but I’m going to be sprinkling in bits about a few chambers that aren’t on this list, too.

Democrats are mostly agreed on which chambers are the highest priorities for the party this year (though reasonable minds can and do differ around the edges).

Factors considered in creating this target list include:

  • How many seats do Democrats need to flip to win a majority in the chamber?
  • Do past election results, political trends, or other factors indicate that Democrats can flip that many seats in a single election?
  • Was Democratic recruitment strong?
  • Do legislators in that state impact redistricting (some states, like California, task independent commissions with drawing legislative and congressional maps)?

Topmost among those targets are (in alphabetical order, nothing to read into here):

  • Arizona House (Dems need to flip two for a majority)
  • Arizona Senate (Dems need to flip three)
  • Michigan House (Dems need to flip four)
  • Minnesota Senate (flip two)
  • North Carolina House (flip six)
  • North Carolina Senate (flip five)
  • Pennsylvania House (flip nine)
  • Texas House (flip nine)
    • In Arizona, flipping either chamber would break the Republican trifecta. While legislative and congressional maps there are drawn by an independent redistricting commission, Republicans have spent the entire decade trying to undermine and dismantle the body; as long as the GOP has complete control of the state, fair redistricting is in real danger.
    • In Michigan, flipping the House would help stymie ongoing GOP efforts to dismantle or defang the independent redistricting commission the party’s been attacking since voters approved it in 2018.
    • In Minnesota, flipping the state Senate would give Democrats a governing trifecta (governorship, House, Senate) and complete control of the redistricting process.
    • Flipping at least one chamber in North Carolina is essential to preventing another GOP gerrymander of the state. The Democratic governor is generally favored to win reelection here, but it doesn’t matter—the legislature has complete control of legislative and congressional redistricting.
    • While Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is positioned to veto egregious partisan gerrymanders sent to him by the legislature, flipping a chamber in Pennsylvania would give him a redistricting partner, so to speak, which would send him a fair map to approve, levy against the GOP in negotiations, or be considered by the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court in litigation.
    • Flipping the Texas House would break the GOP trifecta in the state and give Democrats a say in the redistricting process for the first time since the infamous DeLay-mander of 2003.

Helpfully, no Dem-held chambers are really in danger of flipping.

  • … unless you count the Alaska House, which is counted among Democratic-majority chambers but was actually a cobbled-together coalition of Dems, independents, and moderate Republicans.

And I say “was” for a reason.

  • This coalition recently disintegrated after two of its six GOP members lost their primaries in August and a third died in a plane crash.
  • The remaining three Republicans say they support GOP control of the chamber next year.
    • So Republicans may be able to technically chalk up a chamber flip in their column after Nov. 3—even if they fail to pick up a single seat in this chamber.

Bully for them. Let’s get back to the statehouses that matter this fall.

(A quick note: The ratings I use are Safe, Likely, Lean, Tossup. Don’t give me any of this “Tilt” nonsense; that just means you can’t make up your mind and/or don’t have the guts to commit.)

The Sun: Arizona House (31 R/29 D) and Senate (17 R/13 D): I’d say both of these chambers are tossups.

Here’s why:

  • Thanks to the deep-dive analysis of my Daily Kos Elections colleagues, we know that there’s very much a path to the majority in each chamber.

First, a quick primer on how legislative districts, like, work in Arizona, because its setup is a little different from most other states.

  • Arizona is divided into 30 legislative districts, and each one of these districts elects one senator and two state representatives every two years.
    • The districts are exactly the same for both chambers.
    • Each party can nominate up to two candidates for each House district, and voters can vote for their top two choices in the general election.
    • The two candidates with the most votes are elected.
  • Currently, Republicans have a 17-13 majority in the state Senate and a 31-29 majority in the House.
  • Neither chambers has a presiding tie-breaking entity (fun fact: Arizona doesn't have a lieutenant governor!), so a tie in either chamber would result in either
    • A power-sharing agreement, or
    • Defections from one party or the other.
      • Either way, it’s better to have that outright majority.
  • In 2016, Clinton carried 14 of the state’s 30 legislative districts as she lost the state to Donald Trump 49-45.
  • In 2018, Sinema carried those 14 districts and also won two districts that went for Trump.
    • These Sinema/Trump districts are LD-17 and LD-20.
      • LD-17 moved from 51-43 Trump to 50-47 Sinema.
      • LD-20 went from 49-45 Trump to 51-47 Sinema.

Let’s take a closer look at LD-17.

  • In 2018, Republican J.D. Mesnard won an open Senate race by a narrow 51-49 margin, so he’s a prime Democratic target for 2020.
    • He’s being challenged by Democrat AJ Kurdoglu, an immigrant and naturalized citizen who’s a small business owner and an ardent supporter of fully-funded public education and expanded access to quality health care.

And now for LD-20.

  • This district currently has an all-GOP delegation.
  • In the 2018 Senate race, Paul Boyer won an open seat 48-44.
    • He faces Democrat and Arizona native Doug Ervin this November.
  • In the 2018 House election, Republicans Anthony Kern and Shawnna Bolick took first and second place with 26 percent of the vote each, while a pair of Democrats were close behind with 24 percent apiece.
    • Teacher and community leader Judy Schwiebert is the only Democrat on the ballot in the district this year.

But possibly the most tantalizing prospect for Arizona Democrats this year is LD-28.

  • You see, this district went for both Clinton (50-45) and Sinema (55-43), but it still has a Republican in its legislative delegation.
    • GOP state Sen. Kate McGee barely managed to win re-election in 2018 by a margin of just 265 votes.
    • This fall, she’s in a rematch with Democrat Christine Marsh, a longtime educator (Arizona’s 2016 teacher of the year).

Both Trump and McSally won LD-06 (by 52-42 and 49-47, respectively), but this one is definitely on Dems’ target list.

So, the paths to Democratic majorities in the Arizona House and Senate are fairly narrow and certainly challenging, but they very much exist.

But these races don’t exist in a vacuum.

Downballot Democrats are going to be helped by high-performing members of their party in other races, too.

  • Mark Kelly seems all but certain to oust U.S. Senator Martha McSally.
    • Polling consistently has the Democrat with a strong lead in the race, and McSally’s, Trump’s, and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey’s unfavorables are all fairly high, indicating a general level of dissatisfaction with Republican governance in the state that is likely to aid the party currently out of power.

The Devil: Michigan House (58 R/52 D): Shouldn’t be a tossup (should Lean D) but is.

Not-so-fun-fact! Republicans have won a majority in the 110-seat Michigan House of Representatives since the last round of redistricting in 2011 despite Democrats winning more votes in three of the last four elections!

Yeah, that’s a solid GOP gerrymander for ya.

But despite the GOP’s incredibly skewed map, Democrats do have a path to a majority in the Wolverine State.

  • In 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette 53-44 to become governor and carried 56 of the 110 House seats—exactly the number that her party needs to take a majority.
    • Helpfully, no Democrats represent districts won by Schuette, which means that Republicans are playing defense in four seats Whitmer won.
      • That said, Trump won three of these four seats in 2016, so a sweep is a tall order for sure.

Let’s take a peek at those four districts.

A little more of a reach are HDs 38 and 39, both won by Trump in 2016 and by Whitmer in 2018.

  • HD-38 went for Trump 49-46 before supporting Whitmer 52-46.
  • HD-39 backed Trump 50-46, but Whitmer won it 53-45.
    • Republican incumbent Ryan Berman was elected to his first term in 2018 54-42, but that election took place under … unfortunate circumstances:
    • This time around, Berman faces Julia Pulver, a nurse who counts healthcare as her highest policy priority—a sure selling point as the pandemic continues to rage.
  • And finally there’s HD-45, which supported Whitmer just 49.2-48.8—a margin of 181 votes.
    • In 2016, Trump took the seat 51-44.
      • Republican incumbent Michael Webber won 55-45 in 2018, but he’s termed-out this year, depriving Republicans of the benefit of incumbency, at least.
    • Republican Mark Tisdel is running to succeed him.
      • He “supports most Trump policies” but “wishes the president would quit tweeting.”
    • Democrat Barb Anness is a small business owner and a local education board trustee whose years of education advocacy will strongly inform her priorities in the Michigan House.

So while these targets are super viable, flipping the Michigan House on Nov. 3 will require a lot to go right for Democrats.

  • Specifically, not only do they have to run the table in these four districts, but they also may have some defense to play.
    • Remember, 10 seats Democrats currently hold voted for Trump in 2016 (though they all went for Whitmer two years later).
  • But Democrats do have a perfectly viable long-shot target in HD-79, where young rising star Chokwe Pitchford is taking on incumbent Pauline Wendzel in a district Whitmer lost just 47-50.

The StarMinnesota Senate (35 R/32 D): Likely D (hell yeah).

Womp womp


  • In the special U.S. Senate election in 2018, Democrat Tina Smith carried 39 out of 67 districts.
  • Democrat Tim Walz carried those same 39 seats, plus two more.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar annihilated her GOP opponent and carried a ridiculous 52 of the 67 Senate seats, but a closer look reveals the most viable targets.
    • Eight of them, specifically, found among the eight Smith/Waltz districts currently represented by Republicans.
  • It’s worth noting, though, that only two of those seats supported Clinton in 2016 (SDs 44 and 56).
    • … which, well, is fine, since Democrats only have to flip two for that sweet Senate majority and hot trifecta action.
  • So, in addition to SDs 44 and 56, keep an eye on SDs 11, 14, 25, 26, 28, 34, 38, and 39.

Judgement: North Carolina House (65 R/55 D) and Senate (29 R/21 D): Lean R and Likely R, respectively.

By the by, the North Carolina House call is the toughest one of this bunch. I’m so close to rating it Tossup, but the maps are … ugh.

The bottom line is that Democrats acquiesced to GOP-drawn maps that do give Democrats the chance to win more seats this fall, but it’s still going to be challenging for the party to take a majority in either chamber.

… which, frankly, was always going to be the case to some extent.

Let’s take a look at the details.

  • Under the maps in effect this year, Trump took 72 House seats (out of 120) and 28 Senate districts (out of 50).
    • Translation: Even though Trump won just 51% of the vote in 2016, he’d still have won 59% of all seats in the legislature on these district lines.
  • So based on presidential performance in these districts, the current maps make it difficult for Democrats to shake the GOP’s grip on power.
  • But that’s not the whole story!
    • Again, these elections don’t take place in a vacuum.
    • Not only does North Carolina have Joe Biden with a slight edge over Trump on the presidential level, but there are two other high-profile statewide contests here this year.
    • Specifically, U.S. Senate and governor.
    • And Democrats not only have solid leads in both of those contests, but, for an incumbent governor running for reelection, Roy Cooper has ridiculously strong favorable/unfavorable numbers: 52%-44%, specifically.
    • This apparent faith in Democrats’ ability to govern the state will only benefit Democrats running to help him out in Raleigh next year.

Is flipping either chamber of the North Carolina legislature going to be easy?


But it’s both absolutely doable and incredibly important.

Fun fact! In 2022, the Tar Heel State will have new legislative maps for the fourth cycle in a row.

The TowerPennsylvania House (110 R/ 93 D): Lean R.

With nine seats needed to flip the chamber to a Democratic majority, it’s certainly one of the heavier lifts on this list.

But, again, my colleagues dug into the numbers—specifically the 2018 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate results—and lo! They discovered a fairly heartening Democratic path to the majority.

  • Like most legislatures’ lower chambers, all members of the (203-seat!) Pennsylvania House are up for reelection every two years, so every seat is up this fall.
    • Republicans hold a 110-93 majority (there are a couple of vacancies, but we slot those in the column of the party that last held the seat).
  • I’m sure you recall that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, but not only did he carry the state; he also took 119 of those 203 state House districts (Clinton carried 83).

Bummer, right?

Sure, but things change.

And in the Keystone State, change they did.

  • When Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey won reelection over Republican Lou Barletta in 2018, he carried those 83 Clinton districts, plus 36 more. (...that’s 119.)
  • Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf did even better in his reelect that year, winning those 119 districts + 13 more (= 132).

So! The math looks good. Democrats just have to win a bunch of those Casey districts, right? And maybe some Wolf districts, just for fun?

Alas, it’s never that simple.

  • First thing to consider is that, of the Democrats currently in the chamber, there’s some defense to play.
    • Two Democrats are in seats won by Trump/Barletta/Wagner.
    • Three represent seats won by Trump/Barletta/Wolf.
    • Ten Dems serve in Trump/Casey/Wolf seats.
      • But, based on trends, it’s fair to not fret too much about those ten Democrats.
  • So, let’s assume anywhere from two to five Democrats are playing pretty serious defense this fall.

Not great, but it’s a better place to be than the Pennsylvania House GOP right now.

  • Here’s why:
    • Six Republicans occupy seats won by Clinton AND Casey AND Wolf.
      • Good targets! But even if Dems keep all their current seats, not enough.
    • However, another 25 Republicans represent seats that went for Trump in 2016 but shifted to Casey and Wolf in 2018.
      • So, even with Democrats playing some defense, there’s a fairly broad map to flipping the nine seats they need to win a Pennsylvania House majority.

But nine seats is a lot to flip in any cycle. Keystone Dems definitely have their work cut out for them.


If the map were any more friendly, this would 100% be a Tossup. So close.

And last but most certainly anything but least,

Wheel of FortuneTexas House (83 R/67 D): Tossup.

Yeah, you read that right.

  • That “flip nine” bit looks a little intimidating, but there’s good reason to be cautiously optimistic about this admittedly heavy lift of a state.
    • While the state Senate is safely in GOP hands (it’s a heavily gerrymandered 19 R/12 D chamber), the House is a viable target.
    • If Democrats can flip this chamber, they can block a sure-to-be severely gerrymandered Republican congressional map.
      • This would kick the process over to the courts, which is likely to result in districts that are more fair than anything drawn by the GOP (though the bar is extraordinarily low on that).
      • And fairer districts are likely to give Democrats and Latinos more opportunities to win congressional seats than any Republican map.
    • State legislative redistricting, however, would effectively remain in GOP hands, based on the process currently in place.

So, given the state of things (83 R/67 D), why am I kinda bullish on Democrats flipping those nine Texas House seats?

But it gets better!

So yeah, Texas.

Two years ago, it was hard to conceive including the state on any kind of single-election flip list.

But in November of 2018, Democrats picked up 12 seats, and voila! Here we are.

And speaking of where we are …

Congrats on slogging through all of that!

But tl;dr— 

  • Arizona House: Tossup.
  • Arizona Senate: Tossup.
  • Michigan House: Tossup.
  • Minnesota Senate: Likely D.
  • North Carolina House: Lean R.
  • North Carolina Senate: Likely R.
  • Pennsylvania House: Lean R.
  • Texas House: Tossup.

Just 19 more days before … well, before we won’t actually yet know which party will have majority control of some of these chambers.

Because so many state legislative races are decided each year by 100 votes or so (or fewer!), don’t expect to know where all of these states stand by the time you go to bed on election night.

It’ll take days to have full results. At least. Maybe even weeks.

That’s normal, and that’s okay.

But when all is said and done, I predict Democrats will flip at least four legislative chamber majorities.

If it’s an amazing night, Dems could flip seven.

  • They may only net three to six because of the Alaska shenanigans I explained up top, but a House majority in Texas means a lot more to the future of either party than a House majority in Alaska. (Sorry, Alaska. You're great and I love your deadly bears.)

But Alaska weirdness notwithstanding, Democrats aren’t actually really playing defense anywhere this year.

And there may be some sleeper flips—Iowa House, e.g. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Also … the Republican State Leadership Committee is making some spending decisions that could be defined as … questionable?

Like, for instance, the org’s spending on ads in a Georgia House race.

  • The RSLC is targeting the chamber’s Minority Leader, and it’s always fun to decapitate the opposition, but … this is really how Republicans are spending money?
    • Almost $700,000, they claim.
  • To flip a single seat in a Deep South chamber they hold 105-74?

Y’all I just don’t know

Well, that’s my spread (tarot joke!) for 2020 state legislative elections.

I’m a notorious pragmatist when it comes to these contests, and I hope my prediction of just four chamber flips is something we all laugh at me for in the weeks following the election when it turns out to be actually, like, 10.

It’s not going to be 10

  • Oh, and just because I’m not talking about Republican lawmakers in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin pulling shenanigans with electors and mail-in ballots to throw presidential election results into chaos doesn’t mean I’m not still super worried about it.
    • You can see me talk about how doggone worried I am about it on this week’s episode of The Brief, Daily Kos’ new politics show (my bit starts at 29:25), if you have time time to kill and need a laugh from looking at all the weird faces I make.

(The whole ep is really quite excellent—the amazing Elie Mystal is a tough act to follow for sure!)