Some Republicans, however, acknowledge the party faces a genuine threat in longtime conservative bastions like Texas.
“The switch was flipped on in the November 2018 midterm elections. It was, ‘Oh boy, this is real, we better get our act together,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas. “But I’m also not sure the party has figured it out.”
Democrats are far more cognizant of the opportunity and risk of redistricting than they were in 2010. National Democratic groups, including the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association, have separate efforts to help Democrats compete in down-ballot races.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for statehouse Democrats, is on track to raise and spend about five times more than it did during the last redistricting cycle.
“Democratic donors across the country really understand the significance of legislative races across the country,” said DLCC President Jessica Post, who was a junior staffer there during the Republican wave in 2010.
National groups are eyeing Texas not only because Biden is polling close to Trump, but because Democrats need to gain control of at least one chamber of the state legislature to have a say in the state’s congressional map.
Texas stands to gain a handful of new congressional seats after the Census. In 2018, Democrats flipped two state Senate seats and 12 in the state House. The nine state House seats Democrats are eyeing to flip the chamber were all carried by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke when he ran for Senate two years ago.
In an interview, O’Rourke said years of litigation over the state’s maps — and claims those maps have diluted the power of voters of color — are motivating Democratic voters.
“Folks are talking about this and they get that if we have a Democratic majority, not only can we help decide what those new congressional districts look like, we can help to redraw existing state House, state Senate, U.S. Congress districts to include instead of exclude Black and brown voters in this state,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke is among the higher-profile Democrats working to direct resources and attention to obscure statehouse races in states like Texas and North Carolina.
So, too, is Virginia State Delegate Danica Roem, who in 2017 was the first openly transgender person to be elected to a U.S. statehouse. Roem said she’s held Zoom calls to help raise money for candidates or state parties in places like North Carolina and Texas.
In some areas, Democrats don’t need to win outright to advance their cause. In Kansas, they’re aiming to break the GOP’s statehouse supermajority so Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly can wield her veto power over congressional maps. To do that, they need to flip one seat in the state House and two in the state Senate.
Democrats are zeroing in on races in states with independent redistricting commissions that have come under fire from Republicans. They include Michigan, where Republican lawmakers have tried to take control of funding for the redistricting commission, and Arizona, where legislators have tried to split a legislative district that is the only majority Native American one in the state.
North Carolina is important for another reason. Despite having a Democratic governor, state rules prevent him from vetoing maps crafted by the majority GOP legislature.
Several factors make Democrats believe this time will be different. They’ve already made important strides to thwart Republican map-making in 2021, including winning the governorships in Wisconsin and Michigan and reelecting Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. They also forced the redrawing of some old maps that put them in better position in places like North Carolina, and are encouraged by recent turnout in primaries in Wisconsin and Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, with so much attention focused on the presidential election and control of the Senate, many Democrats still worry that down-ballot races will get short shrift.
“The question is … given the extraordinary and appropriate emphasis on the presidential race and the extraordinary emphasis on winning back the Senate, are we going to miss the third leg of this stool, which is losing control of the states and having this extreme congressional and legislative gerrymandering for another decade,” asked Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist who ran for president and has spent hundreds of millions to elect Democrats.
Steyer said he’s encouraged by the grass-roots activity on the ground. Yet taken together, he’s still concerned about the broader “Republican playbook” — which he said includes redistricting, voter suppression and preventing vote-by mail expansion — if Democrats don’t remain vigilant.
Dave Abrams, deputy executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, predicted that Democrats are “going to fail again” at the state level despite their renewed efforts. He said voters would “definitively reject the liberals’ new radical agenda that dismantles our nation and replaces it with a lawless society.”
But Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, who lost his state seat to remapping in 2010 and was later reelected, said that recent polls showing Trump and Biden virtually tied in Texas suggests the president is slipping in the suburbs. That alone, he said, is plenty of incentive for national Democrats to play in the Lone Star state.
“We’re very bullish about 2020,” he said, pointing to the party’s gains in Texas in the 2018 midterms. “It’s a complete train wreck of an environment for the Republican Party right now.”