early and often

2020 Election Subplots: All the Fascinating Races You Probably Haven’t Been Following

Let’s check in on Montana. Photo: Louise Johns/The Washington Post via Getty Images

So you’ve pored over early vote totals from Florida for the 17th time today, and can’t stop wondering whether sexts as deeply unsexy as Cal Cunningham’s might really derail Democratic efforts to retake the Senate. What can you do to salve your political anxieties?

Dive even deeper into politics, of course. So here’s our guide to races around the country below the level of the presidential and Senate campaigns.

House Races: New Faces of the Suburbs

“2018 wasn’t a blue wave,” as CNN’s Harry Enten put it. “It was a blue tsunami.” Democrats gained 40 seats, the most since the Watergate year of 1974, largely by sweeping Republicans out of suburbs. With entire metropolitan areas in red states growing more diverse and turning purpler, it was clear then that the GOP could face still more danger. But President Trump and the national party have done surprisingly little to adapt, even as Democrats out-raised them, and even as more than two dozen Republican House members headed for retirement. So don’t expect a reversion to the mean in 2020. Democrats are poised to lock in their gains, add another eight to ten seats, and establish footholds in the counties leading away from Atlanta and Dallas, not just New York and Philadelphia.

Here are races to watch with interesting implications:

New York’s Second District: Say good-bye to Republican representative Pete King, the burly, brawling personification of outer-borough grievance transplanted to Long Island. King is retiring after 28 years in Congress, the last decade of which was marked by his increasingly vituperative attacks on American Muslims. Now we’ll see how much his district, which straddles Nassau and Suffolk Counties on the South Shore has changed: Vying to replace him are Democrat Jackie Gordon, a former guidance counselor and combat veteran in the Army Reserve, and Republican assemblyman Andrew Garbarino, son of Islip Township GOP chairman William Garbarino.

New Jersey’s Second District: Representative Jeff Van Drew took the biggest political gamble by any member of Congress in the past two years: Last December, he switched parties, became a Republican, went to the White House and told President Trump, “You have my undying support.” He’s recently had to explain that what he really meant was that he had undying support “for the idea of the greatness of America,” and now he’s in a dead heat against Amy Kennedy, a teacher and mental health advocate who’s also married to Representative Patrick Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s youngest son. In contrast, the three New Jersey Democrats who beat incumbent Republicans in 2018 and should have been prime GOP targets all seem safe.

Nebraska’s Second District: This rematch of Republican representative Don Bacon and former community-college executive Kara Eastman isn’t just a toss-up. It’s also a barometer of how much Democrats are gaining in the suburbs. After Barack Obama narrowly carried this Omaha-centered district in 2008, picking up an electoral vote, Nebraska legislators rewrote its boundaries to include less of the city and more of its suburbs. That was enough for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016 to win here — but polls have shown Joe Biden leading Trump by about 5 percentage points. If Eastman wins, or even keeps things close, it bodes very well for Democrats in other suburban districts and for Biden’s national chances.

Texas’s 24th District: Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a former school-board member who hopes to become the first Black Latina in Congress, faces former Irvine mayor Beth Van Duyne for this open seat. Located in the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, this district used to be reliably Republican, but this race has been close all year. If Valenzuela wins, it’s a sign the Democrats could flip three to five House seats in Texas alone.

The Governor’s Race With a Cameo from 2,200 Miles Away

Of the 11 gubernatorial campaigns taking place across the country, exactly one is a toss-up: in Montana, which tilts about ten points Republican, but has sent Democrats to the governor’s residence for the past 16 years. GOP candidate Greg Gianforte is a Young Earth creationist who sold a software company he founded to Oracle for $1.5 billion in 2011. And his political career really took off after he grabbed Ben Jacobs — then a reporter at the Guardian, these days a frequent Intelligencer contributor — and slammed him to the ground at a 2017 campaign appearance. After that misdemeanor assault, which led President Trump to call him “my kind of guy,” Gianforte won election and reelection to Congress, and now he’s running neck-and-neck against Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Last week, Cooney’s campaign, realizing that Gianforte used to live in New Jersey, hired Chris Christie for $200 to record a Cameo video to “Greg,” saying, “Get yourself back to Jersey quick.” The money went to charity. Christie was irritated anyway. It was the single best prank of this election cycle.

Some Down-Ballot Races a Certain Billion-Dollar Donor Is Watching Closely

North Carolina elects its governor and lieutenant governor separately, and in 2016, voters chose candidates from different parties to fill those seats. (New Yorkers nominate gubernatorial and No. 2 candidates individually, who then run together as general-election tickets. Come on, you remember Al DelBello!) So this year, while incumbent Democratic governor Roy Cooper faces off against current Republican lieutenant governor Dan Forest, longtime state Representative Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Democrat, is running against Republican gun-rights activist Mark Robinson for the open lieutenant governor’s seat. Robinson is quite the character — among other things, he’s posted on Facebook that Black Panther was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by [a] satanic Marxist.” But what’s really interesting is that while local media has called the lieutenant governorship “a largely ceremonial role,” Michael Bloomberg’s Beyond Carbon Fund has plowed $8.5 million into Holley’s campaign. Turns out Holley wants to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in North Carolina by 70 percent in ten years, and if she wins, she would chair the state’s Energy Policy Council, a key planning agency.

Beyond Carbon has also given $6.3 million to three Democrats running together as a “solar team” for seats on the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission, which has authority in that state’s constitution to mandate energy sources and rates. And it has pumped $2.5 million into the campaign coffers of Chrysta Castañeda, a Democrat running for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. The key there is that the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t actually regulate railroads; it oversees the oil and gas industries. And her campaign has picked up since voters started to realize that Jim Wright, her Republican opponent, isn’t that Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (who died in 2015). Looks like Bloomberg is much sharper about getting a bang for his buck when other people are the candidates.

State Legislative Races: A Chance to Rewrite the Political Map – Literally

Most of us would probably have a hard time naming our own state senator, but it’s worth paying attention to the 86 legislative chambers that are up for grabs across 44 states this year, because the stakes are so huge: In most of them, senators and representatives will have the authority to draw new congressional boundary lines after the results of this year’s Census are finalized. Democrats are playing a ten-year game of catch-up here: In 2010, Republicans invested massively, flipped nearly 700 state-level seats across the country, and used their new power to reset more than 200 congressional districts. Their gerrymandering was so effective that the GOP’s proportion of seats in the House of Representatives was about 5 percentage points bigger than the percentage of the national vote Republicans earned in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. In the past two years, courts have ordered new congressional maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Now, Republicans are facing trouble, and not just because Democratic groups are spending five times as much as they did in 2010. The blue tsunami of 2018 extended down ballot, wiping out many suburban and moderate GOP lawmakers. And now there just aren’t any places left with a narrowly divided state senate or state house where Republicans can still count on making easy or even plausible gains. On the other hand, there are more than a dozen closely contested chambers in blue or purple states, allowing Democrats realistic hopes of taking over.

The big prize is the Texas House of Representatives, where Democrats need to gain nine seats (out of 150) to win control — and Beto O’Rourke carried nine Republican state-level districts while narrowly losing his U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz in 2018. Other battles to watch: Democrats need to net three seats (out of 60) to take the Arizona State House or three (out of 30) to take the state senate and gain a share of power in running that state. Keep an eye on Coral Evans, mayor of Flagstaff and a leader in the fight against coronavirus, who’s running in Legislative District Six — she’s an up-and-comer. Flipping just a handful of seats in the Iowa House would break total Republican control there, while gaining a couple in the Minnesota Senate would give Democrats a trifecta of the governorship and both chambers. And the North Carolina Senate and Pennsylvania House — which will help reshape nearly three dozen congressional districts — are toss-ups.

Meanwhile, a severely underreported story is brewing closer to home: After years of New York State Senate control teetering back and forth among the two major parties, independents and rogues, Democrats broke through in 2018, and now they are not only firmly in charge of the chamber, but just two seats away from a supermajority. They’ve got 40 seats out of 63, and could pick up another two in any of a dozen districts, from Long Island to the Hudson Valley to the Buffalo suburbs. And then, since they are sure to hold on to more than 100 of the Assembly’s 150 seats, Democratic lawmakers could not only pass whatever they want, but override any veto issued by Andrew Cuomo. Power players are just starting to come to grips with what that might mean — starting with all kinds of creative new taxes to soak the rich.

By Public Demand: Ballot Initiatives and Referenda

Coronavirus made it much harder for petition-carrying activists to knock on doors this year, but 129 proposals still made it onto statewide ballots for direct public votes.

California’s Proposition 22 has drawn $218 million in campaign spending, nearly twice as much as any other initiative in the country this year, and that’s probably just the beginning of a long battle over the rights of workers at gig companies. Last year, California enacted legislation that defined the term “employee” broadly; Prop 22 would exempt drivers at app-based companies from that law and redefine many of them as independent contractors, limiting their minimum-wage and insurance rights. Fun fact: Uber and Lyft have spent at least $95 million combined promoting Prop 22 — and saw their stock prices rise 4.2 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively, on Monday, as Wall Street bet the initiative would pass.

Illinois will vote on a constitutional amendment to replace its income tax, currently a flat 4.95 percent, with graduated rates. The new brackets would raise taxes on residents who earn more than $250,000 a year, topping out at a rate of 7.99 percent on joint filers making more than $1 million. The measure looks likely to pass — not just because things are so bad right now in Illinois that the state is desperate for revenue, though they are and it is — but because (hey, mainstream media!) progressive taxation is popular! Fun fact: Governor J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire whose family owns Hyatt Hotels, is himself the largest donor to Vote Yes for Fairness, which supports the amendment, giving more than $50 million.

Five states will vote on legalizing marijuana: Mississippi for medicinal purposes; and Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota for recreational use. Legalizing pot has proven enormously popular across conventional red-versus-blue lines, and is seriously an issue the national Democratic Party ought to exploit. After another batch of states vote next year, possibly including New York and Connecticut, almost all of the 26 states with initiative processes will have considered marijuana. Then the action will move to Congress.

One substance-related referendum is considerably more radical: Measure 110 in Oregon would decriminalize all drugs and put sales-tax revenue from marijuana sales, plus savings from not making drug-related arrests, toward addiction treatment and recovery. It’s probably the most serious large-scale attempt ever in the United States to treat drug use as a public-health issue rather than part of the criminal-justice system.

In Colorado, Proposition 114 would reintroduce gray wolves, which human hunters wiped out of the state by 1940 and were named an endangered species in 1978, to lands west of the Continental Divide. Unfortunately for the wolves, the Trump administration just decided to remove federal protection from them, so it’s anybody’s guess what they would find when they arrive.

2020 Subplots: Fascinating Races You Haven’t Been Following