Nov 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats make quiet history with state-level gains

Illustration of confetti falling on a voting booth.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Overlooked amid frantic punditry about the "red ripple" in Congress: Democrats quietly won and defended majorities in state legislatures across the country, weakening GOP power on issues at the heart of the national political debate.

Why it matters: State legislative races are on pace to be the highlight of the Democratic ballot. If Democrats hold on to Nevada, this will be the first time the party in power hasn't lost a single chamber in a midterms year since 1934, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The big picture: The partisan battles over democracy and abortion rights — the two issues that dominated Democratic messaging this cycle — are shaped at the state level.

  • Republicans have controlled more state legislative seats than Democrats for more than a decade straight, thanks in large part to a deliberate strategy the GOP hatched in 2010 to dominate the redistricting process.
  • Even after Democrats' stunning gains, Republicans still control more states and will have more total legislative seats. But this election shows Democrats are committed to playing the long game, says Daniel Squadron, founder of The States Project.

State of play: Democrats defended their state-level majorities in Massachusetts and Maryland and won governor seats left open after Republican retirements, securing a "trifecta" in both states. Helmed by a historic $50M investment from the DLCC, they also kept the Maine legislature, the New Mexico and Colorado state Houses, and secured a supermajority in both chambers in Vermont (which has a GOP governor).

What we're watching: Arizona, where Republicans have a narrow two-seat majority in both chambers, was another top target for Democrats. It's still early in the state's vote-counting process, but Democrats told Axios they're hopeful their winning streak will continue there.

  • In Pennsylvania, Democrats are just one seat away from flipping the state House.

The backdrop: Outside Dem groups — fueled by Republican threats to abortion rights and fair election processes — made unprecedented investments in state legislative races this cycle.

  • Two groups, The States Project and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), poured millions into state races in the final four weeks of the election. They targeted races with thin margins in Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
  • Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC focused on the states, invested over $20 million this cycle targeting 25 seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
  • "We're clawing our way back to power after 50 years of investment for Republicans and so much neglect for so long by the Democratic Party," said Forward Majority's president Vicky Hausman.

When the group launched in 2017, it helped Democrats take 12 state legislative seats from Republicans in Virginia through an innovative $1 million campaign.

  • Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow said she raised more than $2 million over the last six months to help flip the Michigan Senate.
  • Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, which supports down-ballot Democratic candidates in battleground states, told Axios the momentum is a result of long-term investment — not just spending this cycle.

Between the lines: Democrats point to the independent redistricting commissions in states like Michigan as critical to enabling the party to pick up state legislative seats.

  • "We started the redistricting process with the theory of the case that if maps are fair and if Democrats can compete, then Democrats can win. That played out" on Nov. 8, said NDRC president Kelly Burton.

The other side: Republicans secured some significant wins too, including a veto-proof supermajority in Florida as well as supermajorities in the North Carolina Senate, Wisconsin Senate, Iowa Senate and South Carolina House, Republican State Leadership Committee communications director Andrew Romeo told Axios in a statement.

What to watch: The state-level efforts have major national implications. If Arizona flips, the number of Electoral College votes under full Republican control would decline from 307 to less than the required 270 for a presidential election.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a monumental case concerning the once-fringe "independent state legislature theory."
  • The conservative court could allow partisan state legislatures to unilaterally set the rules for federal elections as soon as 2024 — even if they result in partisan gerrymandering or violate state constitutions.
  • Some fear it could open the door for states to choose slates of electors who cast their ballot against voters' wishes, as former President Trump and his allies attempted to do in their efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
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