Assessing the Down Ballot Races With Impact

February 20, 2020 | Louis Jacobson

The first ballots have only just been cast in the 2020 presidential race, but the contest has already prompted torrents of spending. 

According to the data firm Advertising Analytics, the Democratic presidential candidates cumulatively spent almost $835 million just on ads alone to date. Most of the Democratic money spent so far has come from the pockets of the two billionaires in the race, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and businessman Tom Steyer who have spent $439 million and $176 million respectively. 

Meanwhile, Advertising Analytics reported that President Donald Trump had spent almost $27 million on broadcast and digital ads, plus $10 million on Super Bowl ads and an additional $31 million on ads by his joint fundraising committee.

With so much money sloshing around, there's something often overlooked: Reallocating just a small fraction of that sum into lower-profile races could have a transformative effect on politics and policy on the state and local level. 

"Many Democratic donors are failing to meaningfully invest in state and local elections," wrote Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto, the co-founders of Run for Something, a progressive group that is working to convince Democrats to run for office up and down the ballot. "To them, defeating Trump is the only point of 2020. That myopic focus on winning the White House is a critical failure of the Democratic party's strategy."

One successful example of where one party's decision to focus on lower-profile races worked occurred in Pennsylvania in 2015. That year, Democratic candidates swept to victory in three little-noticed state supreme court races. Within a few years, the court invalidated the heavily pro-GOP congressional map, enabling the Democrats to pull into parity in the state House delegation by 2018 — a key element of the Democrats' successful takeover of the House as a whole.

For the entire 2015 campaign cycle, these three winning Democratic state supreme court candidates collectively received $11.4 million in contributions, according to data from the National Institute of Money in Politics and the Campaign Finance Institute. By contrast, the three Republicans they defeated received just $2.7 million.

We decided to cull examples of state and local races in 2020 that could have a potent political impact — and that could be impacted by a relative pittance of spending compared to the presidential race. Potentially, either party investing in these races could advance their political and policy objectives, regardless of whether they're playing offense or defense.

Some of the contests on our list involve battles for state legislatures that will shape policy choices affecting millions of constituents, or that will help decide how new congressional lines are drawn after the 2020 census. Others involve states that have multiple competitive contests this fall for statewide elected offices, such as attorney general and secretary of state. Some involve Supreme Court races that will shape the direction of the law in their states or elections for prosecutors and sheriffs who hold sway over criminal justice practices and immigration enforcement procedures on the local level.

Where possible, we've highlighted states in which an investment in political infrastructure could benefit multiple races, including federal offices, and states that have relatively inexpensive media markets, where a modest amount of money could go a long way.

Arizona: state House and state Senate

Arizona is undergoing a shift towards the Democrats due to evolving allegiances among suburban voters and growth in the minority population. The closest the Democrats have come to control of the Arizona legislature in recent years is a brief tie in one chamber two decades ago. Now, the Democrats are close to seizing control of one or both chambers; that would require just a two-seat gain in the state House and a three-seat gain in the state Senate. We see both chambers as Toss Ups.  

If the Democrats simply flipped the sixth state House District in Northern Arizona — which Republicans nearly lost in 2018 and which is coming open in 2020 — the House would be tied, 30-30. Meanwhile, the 28th state Senate seat is considered a true swing seat that was won by the GOP by a mere 267 votes in 2018. Winning that seat could narrow the Senate to a 16-14 GOP margin; Democrats are looking at additional other seats as targets in this high-turnout presidential year.

Changing partisan control of one or both chambers in Arizona wouldn't affect redistricting — the state uses an independent commission to draw its lines — but it could have an impact on policy. Arizona's governor, Doug Ducey, is a Republican who has been able to work constructively with Democrats on legislation affecting water and opioids. But if the Democrats controlled a chamber or two, they would be better positioned to oppose Ducey and his party on budget and tax issues, regulatory reform, and education policies such as charter school expansion.

Michigan: state Supreme Court 

Michigan's Supreme Court has a bare 4-3 Republican majority, and two justices — Stephen Markman and Bridget Mary McCormack — must stand for reelection in 2020. Markman was nominated by the GOP and McCormack was nominated by Democrats. (Under Michigan's supreme court election system, candidates are nominated by the parties but run as non-partisans on the ballot.) A net Democratic gain would flip the court's majority, potentially shifting the court to the left.

Minnesota: state House and state Senate

In Minnesota, the GOP controls the state Senate while the Democrats control the state House — a rare split for any state today. But the margins are close, and either chamber could flip; the state Senate is a Toss Up and the state House is Lean Democrat. 

Many of the competitive seats will be based in the Twin Cities suburbs, a region where the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has been strong in recent election cycles. However, in the state Senate, the DFL would have to compete aggressively in Republican-held districts.

Consolidation of the chambers by the Democrats would aid Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, while a continued, or expanded, Republican foothold could mean continued purgatory for such Democratic issues as a gasoline tax for transportation, new gun restrictions, expanded options for health care, universal pre-kindergarten, marijuana legalization, and a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ youths.

Consolidating Democratic control of the legislature could also help the party in redistricting. Minnesota is projected to lose one of its eight congressional seats after the 2020 Census. If Democrats were to gain unified state government control, they could minimize the party's hit under the new lines.

Montana: Governor and other state executive offices

Montana voters will decide this fall whether they want unitary Republican control of state government or whether they want their generally red state to have room for the occasional Democratic officeholder.

The highest-profile race is for governor — an office that, somewhat surprisingly, has been in Democratic hands since the 2004 election, first under Brian Schweitzer and now under Steve Bullock, who is term-limited. Montana's legislature is solidly Republican, and in 2019, Bullock vetoed several GOP-backed measures, including bills on taxes and abortion. A Republican win in the open-seat race could enable the GOP to pass a more conservative agenda than either Bullock or Schweitzer allowed, such as weaker collective bargaining rights for public employees, an easing of environmental regulations, and looser restrictions on the use of federal lands. The Cook Political Report rates the gubernatorial race a Toss Up.

At the same time, Montana will be holding elections for several statewide executive offices. One is attorney general, which is the office held by Bullock before he won the governorship, and which has been held by Republican Tim Fox since Bullock vacated it. Fox is running to succeed Bullock as governor, leaving the attorney general slot open. We view this race as Lean Republican.

Another key race is for the secretary of state. The post is being vacated by Republican Corey Stapleton, who is running for a GOP-held open US House seat. Both parties consider the race competitive; the contest is also rated Lean Republican. 

Meanwhile, Democrat Melissa Romano is seeking a rematch with Republican Elsie Arntzen for the post of superintendent of public instruction. In 2016, Arntzen defeated Romano by a margin of just 51.7 percent — 48.3 percent.

Any Democratic victories in these races could help the state party rebuild its bench, which will be especially important given the likelihood that Montana will gain a US House seat following the 2020 Census. Depending on how the districts are drawn, one of those seats could be competitive for a Democrat — if they can find a credible candidate to run for it. (The actual map-drawing would be unaffected by the 2020 elections since the state handles redistricting by a commission.)

New Hampshire: Governor, state House and state Senate 

Currently, New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, faces two legislative chambers controlled by Democrats, but both have flipped control often in recent years. We see the state Senate as a Toss Up and the state House as Lean Democrat. Sununu also has a competitive race for reelection in 2020, so it's conceivable that several levels of government in New Hampshire could switch this fall.

Sununu has wielded a large number of vetoes during his tenure, including against bills to raise the minimum wage, to tighten gun restrictions, and to enact paid family and medical leave. If Republicans managed to consolidate control of the legislature along with the governorship, they might be able to advance additional business tax cuts and conservative-leaning education policies. Also at stake is control of the redistricting process. 

North Carolina: state House and state Senate, plus several state executive offices

More than almost any other state, North Carolina offers a cornucopia of competitive races for this fall. Not only is it a presidential battleground state and home to a competitive US Senate contest, but it has what are expected to be competitive races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state school superintendent, state supreme court and the state legislature.

For its legislative elections, North Carolina will be using new maps that are a bit more favorable to Democrats than the previous GOP-drawn map was. Still, the Republicans will start with the edge — we see the state Senate as Lean Republican and the state House as Likely Republican. An analysis by Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer identified eight competitive Democratic districts and ten competitive Republican districts in the state House, with six competitive Democratic districts and four competitive Republican districts in the state Senate.

Even if they don't seize control, the Democrats will be looking to at least keep the GOP below 30 seats in the Senate and 72 seats in the House, to avoid a Republican supermajority that could thwart Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper and the legislature have been at loggerheads over various issues during his tenure, most notably a veto battle over the state budget. Legislative control will also be important for the next round of redistricting, which is handled by the legislature without gubernatorial input. The likelihood that North Carolina will gain another US House seat after reapportionment further raises the stakes for redistricting.

Meanwhile, Democrats will also be seeking to defend the statewide offices currently held by Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, and state Auditor Beth Wood, while Republicans look to reelect state Treasurer Dave Folwell and Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler and defend open seats the party holds for lieutenant governor and superintendent of public instruction. Finally, three state supreme court seats — two held by Democrats and one by a Republican — are on the ballot this fall, as well.

Ohio: state Supreme Court

Ohio's Supreme Court has a 5-2 Republican majority. Two Republican incumbents — Judith French and Sharon Kennedy — must stand for reelection in 2020, and if Democrats can defeat them both, they would take the majority on the court. French's seat has drawn a special degree of interest because the Democratic challenger, Jennifer Brunner, has already been elected statewide once — she served as secretary of state between 2007 and 2011.

Pennsylvania: state House and state Senate

Pennsylvania may be one of the most heavily populated swing states in the presidential race. Still, the legislature has been consistently Republican for decades, except for a tie in the state Senate about three decades ago and narrow Democratic leads in the House after the 2006 and 2008 elections. Now, the Democrats are within striking distance in both chambers; we view both chambers as Lean Republican. 

With Pennsylvania's congressional districts now redrawn in a way that removes their longstanding pro-GOP tilt, there's less urgency for Democrats to flip the chambers for the purposes of redistricting. Still, having a Democratic legislature would be helpful to the state's Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, on policy grounds. 

Wolf wants the legislature to pass a measure instituting a severance tax on natural gas, and he also wants to raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12.00 per hour and eventually $15.00. In both cases, Wolf has Democratic support in the legislature but faces Republican opposition.

Texas: state House and state Senate

After suburban and minority voters drove big Democratic gains in Texas in 2018, Democrats are working to flip longstanding Republican majorities in the legislature. 

The House, which has been under GOP control since the 2002 election, is in play, although Republicans start the 2020 cycle with an edge. An analysis by Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist, shows that the Democrats would have to win two GOP-held seats that he considers "lean Democratic", three GOP-held seats now in his "tossup" category, and four of the eight GOP-held seats rated as "lean Republican." We view this as a Lean Republican chamber. The state Senate is not expected to flip to Democratic control, but Democrats are hoping for some marginal gains.

In addition to allowing Democrats to flex some policy muscle in a state where the party has held little sway for years, control of the state House would allow Democrats a long-wished-for seat at the table on redistricting, alongside Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and a state Senate that is likely to remain in GOP hands. In the past, unified Republican control has allowed the GOP to draw highly favorable maps, though they have sometimes been struck down in the courts.

Local prosecutor and sheriffs' races

The laws may be made in Washington, DC, and in state capitals, but on criminal justice issues, the rubber hits the road at the local level, often with district attorneys and sheriffs. In many states, these positions are elected. (A hat tip to Daniel Nichanian, who tracks these races nationally for The Appeal.)

District attorneys will be the ballot in many states, including Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Strikingly, many incumbents face no opposition yet, though Wisconsin has a June filing deadline and independents in Ohio can file as late as March. 

Texas is another state where the filing deadline for DA has passed with many incumbents facing no opposition. However, incumbent DAs are facing Democratic primary challenges from their left in Harris County (Houston) and Travis County (Austin), while the incumbent Democrat in Nueces County (Corpus Christi) is getting a credible Republican challenge, and El Paso County (El Paso) will play host to a crowded open-seat race.

As for sheriffs, the highest-profile race will almost certainly be the Arizona comeback bid by Joe Arpaio, the longtime Republican sheriff of Maricopa County (Phoenix). Arpaio, whose tough-on-immigration policies prompted controversy throughout his career, is challenging Democrat Paul Penzone, who ousted him in 2016. 

Texas could also be a major battleground for sheriffs' races, due to the position's key role in deciding whether their county cooperates with Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) program, which deputizes sheriffs' employees to carry out some types of immigration enforcement. Most counties that take part in the program are solidly red, but for those that are not, the Trump Administration's hard-line immigration policy could make such partnerships politically unpopular. 

Notably, three counties that participate in the program backed Hillary Clinton in 2016: Charleston County, SC, and Cobb and Gwinnett counties in Georgia's Atlanta suburbs. Four other counties that take part are considered relatively swingy: Florida's Pinellas (St. Petersburg), and the Texas counties of Nueces, Tarrant (Fort Worth), and Williamson (suburban Austin). 


In recent years, as voters in urban areas have drifted inexorably towards the Democrats, big-city Republican mayors have become an endangered species.

In half a dozen states, mayorships currently held by Republicans will be contested this fall. Can Democrats leverage urbanites' unease with the national Republican Party to take over these offices? The Republican-held mayors' offices up this year include: Arizona (Mesa and Scottsdale); California (Fresno, Irvine, and San Diego); Florida (Miami-Dade County); Oklahoma (Tulsa); Texas (El Paso); and Virginia (Virginia Beach).