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Obama’s aid to state candidates targets GOP-led legislatures

President Obama, who has endured gridlock in Washington as Republicans in the states took direct aim at his vision and legacy, is stepping in to assist more than 150 state legislative candidates.
President Obama, who has endured gridlock in Washington as Republicans in the states took direct aim at his vision and legacy, is stepping in to assist more than 150 state legislative candidates.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

FARIBAULT, Minn. — For half a dozen years, Republicans have swept into state houses across the nation, winning more legislative chambers than at any time in history and pushing states to the right on issues such as abortion, voting rights, labor unions, and gender identity.

But with Donald Trump’s stumbles raising alarms for Republicans down the ballot, Democrats hope that a resounding win at the presidential level will translate to significant gains in capitals in Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, and beyond.

President Obama, who has endured gridlock in Washington as Republicans in the states took direct aim at his vision and legacy, is stepping in to assist more than 150 state legislative candidates, by far his biggest effort to bolster local Democrats since he took office.


“You are going to see a level of engagement down to the state representative level that I don’t think you’ve seen too many presidents engage in,” said David Simas, the White House political director.

Still, Democrats have a long way to go. Republicans effectively control 68 of the nation’s 99 state house chambers, compared with 36 at the start of 2010.

For years, Democrats complained that Obama and his political operation paid too little attention to the health of the party, and during his tenure, more than 800 Democratic state lawmakers have been voted out of office, among the worst losses for the party under any president in more than 100 years.

Republicans control at least 22 capitals entirely, holding governors’ offices as well as legislatures. Seven years ago, they had complete control of nine.

Matt Walter, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, acknowledged that his party was facing a challenge. “When you’re at an all-time-high number in the legislatures, naturally you have a lot more ground to defend,” he said.


The volatile state of the presidential election has also muddied predictions about who will go to the polls Nov. 8 and what that will mean for races to elect more than 5,900 state lawmakers and 12 governors.

“This is an opportunity year for the Democrats, and that’s more true now than it was two weeks ago,” said Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures who tracks state legislative contests. “But the question mark is turnout.’’

“The presidential race has made it really hard to know what’s going to get people to the polls or what’s going to keep them away,” Storey said.

Obama made a campaign trip Sunday to tightly contested Nevada before headlining party fund-raisers in California. The president is trying to help Nevada Democrats retain the seat of the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, who is serving out his fifth term before retiring.

He was speaking at a Las Vegas rally for Clinton and Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general whose opponent is GOP Representative Joe Heck.

Late Sunday, Obama was to speak at an event in San Diego to benefit the organization that leads party efforts to elect Democrats to the House. His schedule included fund-raisers in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday.

In Faribault, Minn., an hour south of the Twin Cities, Patti Fritz, a Democrat, has seen the puzzle over turnout up close.

Fritz, whose effort to win back a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives could help her party retake full control of the capital, recalled meeting a woman at a grocery store who said she was so disillusioned by the presidential election that she was considering not voting. Maybe she would vote for Jesus, she said.


“Well, write him in for president,” Fritz said she urged the woman, “and then go down further and vote for me.”

Democrats hope Obama’s involvement, which began in earnest last week, broadens their chances. Dozens of candidates for state posts were getting word of the support only last week. In Minnesota, Obama is backing Jamie Becker-Finn in her campaign for a different state House seat.

José Javier Rodríguez, a state representative in Florida, hopes Obama can help him move to the state Senate. And in Georgia, Obama recorded an automated telephone call to support keeping Kimberly Alexander in the state House seat she won in 2012.

“This is Barack Obama, urging you to get to the polls to vote for the candidate who has my back and yours: Kimberly Alexander,” he says in the call. “Thanks. Go vote!”

At least 20 legislative chambers are seen as highly competitive in the election, and a majority of those are now controlled by Republicans. Democrats are setting their sights on chambers not only in Minnesota but also in states like Maine, New Mexico, and New York. Republicans hope to hold control and extend their reach in places like Iowa, Kentucky, and Washington.

Such races are often decided by a few hundred votes or fewer, so turnout is essential — and, this year, a muddle. Democrats say their state candidates will benefit if Republicans appalled by Trump stay home. Republicans, though, say Trump’s core supporters are more motivated to vote than others, particularly given negative views of Hillary Clinton.


Democrats have begun demanding that Republican opponents take stances on Trump and address his lewd remarks about women and allegations that he sexually assaulted women.