WASHINGTON — The 2020 campaign isn’t just about the White House or even the Congress. Across the country, seats in 86 legislative chambers in 44 states will be on the ballot as well. And those elections will have also consequences, in some cases, big consequences, as states will soon set about the task of redistricting.
In recent weeks, the presidential polling data has begun to shift fairly uniformly in the Democrats' favor and that could have very big impacts down-ballot. If those trends and numbers hold, state capitals around the country could look very different in January – including some places that haven’t seen Democrats in control for a very long time.
This week, the Data Download looks at some state legislative chambers to keep an eye on in November, walking back in time to see the last time they changed partisan hands.
Let’s start with some more recent GOP wins, chambers the party captured in 2010. That was a good year for the Republicans swinging legislative bodies across the country, including those in Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina. Those states could be ripe for changes in 2020.
In Iowa, the Democrats only need to gain four seats to take back control of state House of Representatives and the presidential-level polling suggests political change may be in the air. President Trump won the state by more than nine points in 2016, but the current polling average on the fivethirtyeight website shows Joe Biden narrowly ahead. That’s a big swing. Another problematic sign got the GOP, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is locked in a tight fight with her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield.
Democrats also need to pick up just four seats in the Michigan House to take back control of that legislative body. Trump squeaked by in the state in 2016, winning is by just two-tenths of a percentage point and the fivethirtyeight average currently has Biden with a lead of more than eight points. What’s more, since 2016, Michigan has been trending blue, with Democratic candidates taking the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races fairly easily. This week’s threats against the life of the state’s largely popular Democratic governor, aren’t likely to help Republicans either.
In North Carolina, the state Senate and House look like they could possibly flip as well, with Democrats needing to add just five seats in the Senate and six seats in the House. Trump won the state in 2016 by more than three percentage points, but Biden currently leads by more than two in the fivethirtyeight average.
Five and six seats may sound like a lot, but in North Carolina, the GOP may face challenges in fast growing suburban areas – places that have soured on the president in polling – such as the Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas. And in 2018, there were a lot of close races. In both chambers, 20 percent of the races were decided by single-digit margins.
A little further back in time, 2002, the Texas state House flipped to the Republicans and there may be a reason to believe Democrats have a shot at the chamber in November.
It would be a steep climb for the Democrats – they need to gain nine more seats out of the total 150 on the ballot – but Texas looks different in 2020 than it did four years ago, when Trump won it by nine points. The current fivethirtyeight average shows a Trump with a lead of less than two and the GOP’s suburban problem could be a concern in Texas too – around cities such as Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Remember back in 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within three points of defeating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in large part because of a strong Democratic lean in the suburban vote.
Going back even earlier, the Florida state Senate flipped Republican in 1994 after two years of split rule.
Democrats would need to gain four seats out of the 20 that are on the ballot – 10 of which are held by Republicans. That’s a fairly tall order, but working against Republicans in the state is Trump’s problems with senior voters. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll Trump trails Biden by double-digits among those voters. It’s one reason why Trump, who won the state by little more than a point in 2016, is down by more than four points to Biden in the Florida fivethirtyeight polling average.
But the biggest change that could come in November is out west in Arizona, where Democrats have not controlled the state House of Representatives for more than 50 years – back in 1966.
The Democrats only need to gain two seats out of 60 to win back control of the state’s lower legislative chamber and there are signs in their favor. Not too long ago the state had two Republican U.S. senators, now it has one Democrat and one Republican, and that Republican, Sen. Martha McSally, is trailing in the polls. And this is another state that seems to be moving away from Trump. Four years ago the president won this state by 3.5 points, but the latest fivethirtyeight average shows Biden leading by about that amount.
To be clear, none of this is predictive. The lesson from previous elections, especially 2016, is that voters can be unpredictable. And some of these potential flips are much more likely than others.
But with less than a month until Election Day, there are signs of real potential down-ballot problems for Republicans. And if the polls turn out to be right, the blue-tinged impacts may extend far beyond Washington and into state houses scattered across the country.
That would be just in time for the redistricting fight that will redefine Congress for the next decade.