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Amid the dog days of August, Americans are already laser-focused on next year’s presidential election and a handful of competitive U.S. Senate and House of Representatives races that will influence the country’s direction at the end of a decade marked by incredibly divisive politics. 

Voters and the media cannot overlook the importance of state government elections despite the distractions created by the 2020 election cycle’s high-profile candidates, expensive campaigns and contentious national issues.  

Over the next two election cycles, the foundation laid in 2010 benefitting the Republican party will likely be eroded and rebuilt to favor the Democratic party.
At least that is the objective of Democratic political groups, including organizations led by former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, that are determined to wrest control of state political power and make amends for the party’s defeats during Obama’s two terms in office, when Democrats lost 968 state legislative seats, the largest net loss since World War II.  

The Democratic party has made recent progress chipping away at near-historic levels of Republican power in the states. Heading into election night in 2018, the GOP controlled 67 of 99 legislative chambers, 33 governorships and 26 trifectas (one-party control of the governor’s office and legislature), in contrast to just seven Democratic trifectas. 

Today, the GOP controls 61 of 99 legislative chambers, 27 governorships and 22 trifectas, compared to 15 Democratic trifectas and 13 divided governments where neither party enjoys trifecta control. Despite the wave of 2018 election-night victories by Democrats, Republicans defended legislative majorities in key battleground states such as Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and picked up a governorship in Alaska. 

In addition, the 2018 midterm elections consolidated partisan control of states, more so than any election in more than a century. For example, when the votes were counted on election night, Minnesota was the only state with a split legislature, a political anomaly that hasn’t happened since 1914. As a result, states with Republican and Democratic trifectas quickly advanced partisan policies during the 2019 legislative sessions, leaving stakeholders and the construction industry with a case of policy whiplash.

For example, in May, the newly minted Democratic trifecta in Nevada repealed pro-free enterprise laws passed in 2015 by a GOP trifecta, including modest prevailing wage reforms on school construction and a ban on government-mandated project labor agreements on most public works projects. In Illinois, new Gov. J.D. Pritzker (D) on his first day in office rescinded similar modest reforms enacted via executive power by the defeated Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). 

In contrast, states with consistent partisan trifectas predictably enacted philosophically consistent policies. California, Connecticut and New York, states with Democratic trifectas, continued to implement a steady increase of government mandates on state-funded construction projects by redefining and increasing prevailing wage and PLA requirements via various state procurement policies. Meanwhile, GOP trifectas in Kentucky and Texas passed fair and open competition laws in 2019, bringing the total number of states welcoming all Americans to rebuild their communities free from exclusionary and costly government-mandated PLAs to 25.

Besides the obvious political objective of securing majorities to advance partisan solutions to tomorrow’s challenges, both parties are expected to invest heavily in state elections in order to control the state and federal redistricting process and electoral college reapportionment following the decennial census. For better or worse, the party in control of a state trifecta is much more likely to draw favorable state and congressional districts that will heavily influence whether it maintains power in its statehouse and in the U.S. House of Representatives throughout the 2020s. 

Earlier this year, Obama’s political organization, Organizing for Action, folded itself into the Holder-run National Redistricting Action Fund to form the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, giving it control of the vaunted list of supporters, donors and volunteers that Obama and his team built throughout a decade.

In contrast, Republican state political groups, such as the Republican State Leadership Committee, plan to continue initiatives similar to the successful REDMAP 2010, which netted 21 new state legislative majorities and 725 state legislative seats. Likewise, the Republican Governors Association helped grow the number of states with GOP governors to an all-time high of 34 in the 2017 cycle, and has helped Republicans governors get re-elected in traditionally blue states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. 

State Races to Watch

In the relatively quiet 2019 election cycle, there are just three governor’s races, but unexpected pickup opportunities exist for both parties to make gains in state executive offices. In Kentucky, incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R) is running against Attorney General Andy Beshear (D). It is a competitive race, especially because Kentuckians have never elected a Republican governor to consecutive terms since the state repealed its constitutional prohibition against governors serving back-to-back terms. 

In Mississippi, it is unlikely the open race for the governor’s mansion vacated by term-limited Gov. Phil Bryant (R) will result in a Democratic pickup, but Democrats scored a top-tier candidate by recruiting the longest-serving statewide Democratic official in the south: incumbent Attorney General Jim Hood. Hood is running against Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who defeated Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. to win the Republican nomination on Aug. 27. 

In Louisiana, Republicans can go on the offense and pick up a governorship. Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is campaigning for a second term against declared Republican candidates Ralph Abraham, an incumbent representative for Louisiana’s 5th congressional district, and Eddie Rispone, founder of ISC Contractors, one of the largest merit shop specialty contracting firms in the U.S. industrial market. Notably, Rispone served as 2003 chair of Associated Builders and Contractors and has been an active member of the organization’s chapters and leadership within the state and across the country. 

Expect Louisiana’s unusual (all candidates appear on the same ballot) and late (Oct. 12) jungle primary election and potential runoff election (Nov. 16) between the top two vote-getting candidates to provide some late election-cycle theatrics if no primary candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.

On Nov. 5, just seven of the country’s 99 state legislative chambers are holding regular elections, and Virginia is shaping up to be the only state with contests of note. 

All 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and all 40 seats in the Virginia Senate are up for election. Republicans hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the House. In 2017, Virginia Democrats flipped 15 Republican-held House seats, their largest gains in the chamber since 1899, and the GOP’s majority was determined by drawing a GOP candidate’s name out of a bowl after the majority-deciding race resulted in a tie.  

If Democrats continue their momentum, they can flip both chambers and achieve a Democratic trifecta, perhaps cementing control of the blue-trending Commonwealth for the next decade.

Ahead of the 2020 elections, both parties will scrutinize the handful of 2019 off-cycle state elections for national trends and bellwether results that will shape federal, state and local candidate recruitment, messaging, fundraising and policy strategies throughout the next election cycle and beyond.

However, the effects of the 2019 elections will play out months before the nation turns its full attention to the 2020 presidential election. Policies move quickly at the state level, whether through executive actions or brief legislative sessions, as evidenced in states around the country that turned blue following the 2018 midterms. 

The stakes are high, and Americans ignoring the importance of state elections and policies do so at their own short- and long-term peril. 

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