Chaotic Virus Response Puts Statehouses Into Play Across America

July 31, 2020by Margaret Newkirk and Renata S. Geraldo, Bloomberg News (TNS)
The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix. Once the rock-solid Republican home of party legends John McCain and Barry Goldwater, Arizona may soon elect its first Democratic legislature in almost three decades. (Derrick Neill/Dreamstime/TNS)

Arizona, once the rock-solid Republican home of party legends John McCain and Barry Goldwater, could well have its first Democratic legislature in almost three decades next year.

If it does, Republicans will have COVID-19 to blame.

Arizona’s Senate and House are among 13 chambers in seven states that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is targeting, as polling suggests the party is poised for its best Election Day in years — and that the pandemic is hurting the GOP. Democrats are targeting disgruntled independents, highlighting President Donald Trump’s haphazard COVID-19 response and pounding related issues like access to health care.

“There is no doubt that the Democrats are feeling their oats,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “The first ballots go out in September in some states. This election is going to start in just five or six weeks.”

Cook Political report analyst Louis Jacobson this month shifted his predictions for eight chambers, six held by Republicans, in the Democratic direction. One reason the GOP is on defense is that the party has the most seats to defend. Republicans have held most statehouses for nearly a decade. Even after the 2018 election eroded that dominance, the party controls 60% of legislative chambers nationwide.

Partisan switches could bring policy changes on gun control, education funding, environmental rules, Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, abortion and voting rights. They could also decide in most states the critical question of which party will draw legislative and congressional district maps for the coming decade.

Republican-drawn maps from 2011 have spawned years of court battles. Some made it impossible for Democrats to win legislative majorities even while dominating the popular vote. One disenfranchised North Carolina’s black voters with “almost surgical precision,” according to the federal judge who threw it out.

This year, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has raised $50 million to flip seats, 10 times what it raised in 2010. The party’s 2020 targets include House chambers in Michigan, Texas and Iowa, the Minnesota Senate, and both chambers in Arizona, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. There are also longer shots like Kansas and Wisconsin, where Democrats are trying to block Republican supermajorities capable of overriding governors’ vetoes.

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Virus politics can play to both parties, and some Republicans have positioned themselves as champions of freedom opposed to dictatorial public health rules. But polling suggests Republicans are suffering the greatest damage, particularly in recent weeks. A Gallup survey released July 14 found a sharp downturn in public satisfaction with Republican governors’ handling of the pandemic.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the counterpart to the DLCC, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In many states, Trump is the main Democratic foil.

Sensing buyer’s remorse over Michigan’s narrow 2016 vote for Trump, Democrats there are comparing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s swift reaction to COVID-19 to the president’s nonchalance. Democrats need just four wins in the 110-seat House of Representatives to gain control. Three are in the Detroit suburbs where Trump is unpopular and Whitmer’s pandemic response plays well, said DLCC President Jessica Post.

“Michigan, no matter what, is at the top of our list,” Post said in an interview.

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In some competitive states, like North Carolina and Texas, Democrats are hammering hardest on the fact that legislatures haven’t expanded Medicaid.

Brandy Chambers, a Democrat running for the Texas House of Representatives in Dallas’s northern suburbs, said expansion is a big part of her pitch in a state where 18% lack insurance.

“The need for it has really been highlighted in the pandemic,” she said. “It’s no longer just that knee-jerk ‘no.’ People are willing to listen.”

In Minnesota, where Democrats need to win two seats to take the Senate, the squabble is about masks. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has blasted Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s mandate as “heavy handed,” and Walz called the opposition “ginned up, like whether you’re wearing a flag lapel pin or not.”

In Arizona, Republicans have a two-seat majority in the House and a three-seat edge in the Senate. The Cook Political Report rates both as toss-ups.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s action — and inaction — handling the virus created “a seismic reaction within the electorate,” said Chuck Coughlin, founder of the lobbying and political consulting firm HighGround Inc.

Ducey was slow to shut down the state to combat the virus, quick to reopen and initially banned local governments from mandating masks as the virus surged. More than half of Arizonans disapprove of Ducey’s handling of the pandemic, according to a public opinion survey by Nationscape Insights.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one chamber flips,” said Stuart Goodman, a business lobbyist.

Democrats there are also campaigning on broader issues like health care and education, calculating that stresses exposed by the pandemic have shifted public opinion their way.

“Everything is connected,” said Kathy Knecht, a former school board member running for the state House in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb.

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Then there’s Wisconsin, arguably the perfect model of partisan pandemic dysfunction: Anger at the Republican-led legislature is high yet the chances of flipping either chamber are low because of the way legislative maps were drawn in 2011.The legislature has stymied Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to slow the virus and “people are just fed up,” said Deb Andraca, a school teacher and gun control advocate running for the state’s Assembly from the Milwaukee suburbs.

Another Democratic candidate, the three-term mayor of South Milwaukee, is running against the partisan divide itself. Erik Brooks said the pandemic has made it “glaringly obvious” that the state’s government has been broken by a decade of rancor.”

The polarization, the division, the discord, the negative tone, it’s been building for years and the pandemic has brought it to forefront,” said Brooks, who faced fury after supporting virus-fighting measures for his suburb.

Last Friday, Brooks held a rare in-person campaign event on his patio, to watch the Milwaukee Brewers season opener against the Chicago Cubs on an outdoor television. There were masks and a limit of 10 people.

By some measures, it was a bust: Many guests were relatives and the Brewers lost.

Brooks was still pleased. The weather held, his wife is a Cubs fan, and at least two of the non-family guests were Republicans, also upset about the dysfunction in Madison, the capital.

“I have been really happy to see the number of Republicans willing to support me,” he said. “They are really tired of the madness. They’re saying this has to end.”

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©2020 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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