Democrats plan to turn state seats blue by handing out green

Hi. Today, my colleague Nick Corasaniti, who covers voting and elections, joins us with an exclusive look at the money being poured into smaller races. Next, I ask if a surprising outcome from last night’s election in Ohio tells us anything about November. -Jess Bidgood

These are the races often listed at the bottom of ballots, with perhaps unfamiliar names vying for state legislative seats. But these little-known competitions pay off big.

Democrats are poised to flood the nation’s most important House and Senate elections with a spending campaign that will hit nine figures, demonstrating the crucial role state legislatures play in some of the nation’s most pressing issues — and relying on a financial advantage over the Republicans. .

The States Project, a Democratic-aligned group, is set to announce a plan to spend $70 million on legislative battles in nine states, according to a memo I obtained, one of the most most important in such races by a single Democratic-leaning outside group. in recent history. They plan to send the funds directly to candidates and groups on the ground, who can decide how best to use them.

Combined with a previously announced goal of $60 million from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and $35 million from the aligned group Forward Majority, the total amount to help Democratic state legislative candidates will most likely exceed $160 million.

These down-ballot investments underscore the growing awareness among national Democratic organizations that state legislative fights will likely have a greater influence on many issues affecting voters’ daily lives than other contests this cycle – even the presidential race. And the torrent of money coming from the left shows the extent to which Democrats have overtaken what had long been a Republican advantage in campaign finance for state legislatures.

“Over the past decade, from the right to reproductive health care to policies to raise wages for full-time workers, state legislatures have done more good – and more harm – than any other level of government,” said Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic New York state senator and co-founder of the States Project. “So that’s what’s on the ballot in these states for this election.”

And, in often underfunded local races that compete for smaller numbers of votes, dollars typically go much further.

“You can fund a lot more elections and policies in state legislatures,” said Adam Pritzker, the States Project’s other co-founder and Democratic donor (and cousin of Gov. JB Pritzker of Illinois). “And there’s a lot of money for the presidential election.”

The States Project, which has become a crucial weapon for Democrats focused solely on state legislatures, targets competitive races in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while also hoping to build a Democratic supermajority in Nevada. The organization also aims to break Republican supermajorities in North Carolina and Kansas, arguing that it can often hold just a seat or two to have a major impact on state politics.

“In North Carolina, for example, the difference between a draconian abortion ban and a more moderate policy may come down to a single seat,” Pritzker said. “It really demonstrates the impact that legislatures have within this framework of American federalism.”

The group has raised $45 million so far and said it is on track to meet, and potentially exceed, its $70 million goal.

In the early 2000s, it was Republicans who enjoyed a significant financial and strategic advantage, which helped them achieve majorities and win battles over redistricting and welfare.

They do not have an outside entity like the States Project that serves as both a major source of cash and helps shape policy exclusively at the state level, although state-focused interest groups and GOP-aligned organizations have often contributed large sums in recent years. .

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the branch of the Republican National Committee that focuses on state legislative elections (along with Secretary of State, Lieutenant Governor, Commissioners of Agriculture, and Court elections state supreme) has not announced its fundraising goal for 2024. The organization raised $12 million in the first quarter of this year, bringing the total amount raised this cycle to $47 million.

Still, Republicans say their advantage has evaporated, as they were heavily outperformed by Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections and lost control of state battleground chambers in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“This has already been a wake-up call,” said Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who helped Republicans focus on state legislatures in the 2010 redistricting battle. He noted that legislatures states were not only critical policy laboratories, but also ones that they served. as the “farm team where future congressmen, senators and state elected officials” get their start.

In a statement to the New York Times, Dee Duncan, chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, acknowledged that “the constellation of Democratic outside groups will outspend us,” but he highlighted the group’s strategic spending, including a eight-figure budget. investment in mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, which is why the organization is “confident that Republicans are in a strong position to stave off the massive onslaught of money flowing in from Democrats.”

Since the Supreme Court removed the nation’s right to abortion access and handed power to the states in 2022, state legislatures have become the front lines of the fight for abortion access, and many Democratic candidates have successfully campaigned on this issue in special elections.

But the growing importance of state legislatures became a concern for Democrats in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when controversial legal theories posited that legislatures could unilaterally send their own lists of presidential electors to the Electoral College, regardless of the popular vote, in an attempt. to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Although the Supreme Court rejected this theory, known as the independent state legislature doctrine, in a ruling last year, the threat that state legislatures will not certify elections or attempt to delay elections Official results remain a concern for democracy activists.

And a difficulty in the way state legislatures sit means the 2024 elections could directly affect the security of this year’s elections.

“It would shock most people to know that whoever wins the state legislature elections in Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire this year will take office before those states send presidential electors to Congress,” Squadron said . “It raises the stakes enormously.”

It has practically become a ritual of American politics over the past two years.

A special election is held. A Democrat performs much better than expected. And then come the questions: was it one-off? Or a sign that the next big election could go better for the party than the polls suggest?

Last night, in a special election for a congressional seat in eastern Ohio, Democratic Air Force veteran and former actor Michael Kripchak lost by just nine percentage points to a Republican senator, Michael Rulli, in a district that former President Donald Trump had elected. won by 29 percentage points in 2020.

David Pepper, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said it’s part of a trend that Democrats have been doing well since Roe v. Wade fell in special elections from New York to Alabama — and that he hoped the results would be a success. “a shot in the arm” for his November party.

“One side continually outperforms the other side in terms of energy, but it also outperforms in the polls,” Pepper said.

I called my colleague Nate Cohn, chief political analyst for the New York Times, who warned me that a low-turnout special election Really are no way to read the tea leaves for November, because the electorates in each election are just too different.

President Biden and the Democrats, he said, are performing well among the large, highly engaged voters participating in the special election. That’s a good thing for Democrats, he said, but it’s not everything.

“We have a lot of signs that they are weaker in the rest of the electorate,” Nate told me. “They very clearly do worse when you increase turnout.”

Kripchak nonetheless hopes his surprise performance Tuesday night will help him do better when he’s on the ballot again in the fall — if only because it could attract some hard-earned attention and raise money.

“This is what we were able to accomplish in three months, without any support from the Democratic apparatus,” he said of his Tuesday evening result. “We can accomplish even more in the next five months. »

— Jess Bidgood