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Why the Democrats’ state legislature wins matter: ‘Not the minor leagues’

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While Democrats staved off a red wave in Washington during the midterm elections, the party’s most significant victories came far away from the US capitol. They were in state legislatures across the country with consequences that will be felt for years to come.

Over the last decade, Republicans have quietly amassed power in state capitols, investing in races for state legislatures that can be decided by just a few hundred votes. It’s an investment that has paid off wildly. Since state legislatures draw electoral districts in many places, Republicans have used that advantage to entrench their power, drawing district lines that further guaranteed their majorities. They’ve also used those majorities to pass measures that make it harder to vote, strip LGBTQ+ protections, loosen gun laws and restrict access to abortion.

Related: ‘This movement was rejected’: Republican election deniers lose key state races

In the midterms, however, Democrats flipped at least three state legislative chambers and held on to their majorities in several states where they were in jeopardy. The victories ended years of Democratic defeat and disappointment and caught even some Democrats off guard. It marked the first midterm election since at least 1934 in which the president’s party didn’t lose control of a single legislative chamber, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which focuses on state legislative races.

“We went into this cycle very clear-eyed. Knowing it was a presidential midterm and frankly expecting to lose seats,” said Jessica Post, president of the DLCC. “Republicans had everything in their favor. By all accounts, this election should have been a landslide for the Republicans. Instead, their so-called red wave looks more like a puddle.”

In Michigan, Democrats took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was also re-elected to a second term, giving the party complete control of state government in one of America’s most politically competitive states.

“I felt pretty confident we were gonna get one chamber and be looking at potentially picking up the chamber in two years. But it was surprising for me that we flipped both houses,” said Mallory McMorrow, a Democratic Michigan state senator who worked on flipping state legislative seats.

Democrats also flipped control of the Minnesota senate, giving them complete control of state government there. In Pennsylvania, ballots are still being counted in two razor-thin state house races that will determine control of the state house.

They also prevented Republicans from gaining supermajorities in the Wisconsin and North Carolina legislature, an extremely significant development that will prevent GOP-controlled bodies from overriding vetoes from Democratic governors there. Democrats held their majorities in state legislative chambers in Colorado, Maine, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico.

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“We felt those goals were certainly long shots. Many thought they were unattainable,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York State senator who co-founded the States Project, which spent $60m towards electing Democrats state legislative races. “In every chamber, we’ve either met or exceeded our electoral goals.”

Those victories could play an important role in ensuring a free and fair election in two years. In 2020, Donald Trump tried to lean on GOP state legislative majorities in key battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona to try to overturn the results. The Democratic wins could also offer a critical safeguard against the US supreme court, which could soon endorse a fringe legal theory, backed by Republicans, that says state legislatures have virtually unchecked power to set rules over federal elections.

Democrats and allies pointed to a combination of factors behind the wins.

There were more competitive maps in place in Michigan and Pennsylvania this cycle, replacing districts Republicans drew a decade ago. Concerns about abortion access and competitive statewide races also drove voters to the polls. Strong candidate recruitment allowed Democrats to connect with voters. And deep investments allowed Democratic candidates to get out on the campaign trail early and launch an offense against Republican opponents.

In 2020, Democrats failed to flip any of the chambers targeted to try to get a seat at the table in the redistricting process. In 2010, amid a juggernaut GOP effort, Democrats lost control of 20 chambers in a single night. In the 2014 midterms, 11 chambers flipped to Republican control.

“Democrats can, in fact, win at the state legislative level. When we invest our dollars appropriately. When we utilize evidence-based tactics, and when we have candidates who can meet voters where they are, we proved that this year,” said Adam Pritzker, another co-founder of the States Project. “State legislative politics is not the minor leagues.”

Related: ‘We’re at risk’: the little-known races that could expand Republican power

Republicans were massively outspent in state legislative races, Dee Duncan, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), wrote in a memo to donors last week. Four outside left-leaning groups alone spent $125m on the races, dwarfing the $30m the RSLC invested. Duncan noted that the groups, including the DLCC, the States Project, and Forward Majority, spent more in three states – Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania – than the RSLC spent across the country.

“This influx in funding drove significant spending disparities in each state that were hard to overcome,” he wrote. “In every state where we lost a chamber or have potential to lose a chamber (Pennsylvania), Republicans did not win a single statewide election.”

Republicans did earn a few key wins in state races. In North Carolina, they flipped partisan control of the state supreme court. And in Ohio, they won a seat being vacated by a retiring GOP member who had been a swing vote. Those majorities could allow Republicans in those states to pass more aggressively gerrymandered maps, as well as anti-abortion laws.

Beyond local politics

In Michigan, Kristen McDonald Rivet won one of the key state senate races that helped Democrats flip control of the chamber. From the moment she launched her campaign until just a few days before the election, she said, there were pundits who said she couldn’t win the seat, which borders the Saginaw Bay. Joe Biden narrowly carried the district by three points in 2020; McDonald Rivet wound up winning by six points.

When she spoke with voters, McDonald Rivet would mention democracy and voting rights “all of these things that Democrats hold dear”, she said in an interview. But she also recognized the sense of economic unease in her district; families used to be able to work in a plant, raise their families and live “the Michigan dream to go to Disney World in the winter”. She and her husband have raised their six children in the district and her husband’s family has lived there for five generations.

“It’s not about local politics. It was about people’s day to day. Local is not quite the right word,” she said. “I started a lot of my stump speeches with ‘you know politics doesn’t have to be this way.’ And it resonated, probably because I actually believe it.”

Her campaign was also boosted by a strong party infrastructure, millions spent on media, and a massive grassroots effort. Her campaign knocked on 72,000 doors and had 7,500 individual donations, including hundreds of people in her district who had set up recurring donations, some for as little as $3.

Related: Democracy, poisoned: America’s elections are being attacked at every level

She was aided by Michigan Democrats like McMorrow, a state senator who gained national attention after a viral speech earlier this year and raised more than $2m to her Pac to help Democrats running for state legislative seats. In 2018, when she was a first time candidate, McMorrow remembered being brushed off by donors who were more interested in statewide and federal races. That money, now, she said, allowed Democrats to hire paid field organizers and start campaigning earlier than Republican counterparts.

“I think people really get it. And I think we were able to really make the case to people to say in a year when the Dobbs decision came down, really highlighted how important state legislatures are in a very tangible way. Because this is an issue that’s coming back to the states,” she said.

Brian Munroe, a Democrat, knocked on 10,000 doors on his way to flipping a state house seat in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, a competitive area outside of Philadelphia. “I heard from a lot of people, Republican, Democrat, independent, pro-Trump, not pro-Trump,” he said, recalling many conversations about abortion. “Everybody was tired of the divisiveness. I’m even talking about people with the Let’s Go Brandon flag out front.”

Munroe initially was met with some skepticism from big donors, but won them over by pointing out that the district had been redrawn to include a township where he served on the board of supervisors.

“Taking a risk can pay off. Not taking a risk will never pay off,” he added. “If all you do is focus on keeping the seats that you have and you’re not in the majority, then you’re always going to be relegated in the minority. That changed to a degree this cycle.”

In Wisconsin, Lori Palmeri, the mayor of Oshkosh, won a competitive race for the state assembly that blocked Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the legislature that would have allowed them to override any vetoes from Tony Evers, a Democrat who was elected to a second term.

“One of the things I heard the most at the doors was folks were fed up with the political polarization,” she said. “They wanted to see their legislators showing up and doing that work … The message is really from the voters. They really are not going to tolerate one party rule.”

Inspiring long shots

Democrats and allies hope that the success they saw in 2022 will lead more Democrats to take state legislative races seriously.

“My great hope is that our party will really start to understand that everything that affects people’s daily lives, including voting rights and the certification of US presidential elections, happens in states with Democratic trifecta control,” said Post of the DLCC.

In the 48 hours after election day, more than 500 people expressed interest in running for office, said Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, which focuses on recruiting people to run for office.

“Inspiring wins in long shot races inspire more people to take on long shot races. It’s especially true when the candidates in those are young people, women, people of color. It compounds on itself,” she said.

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