Feb 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democrats score fast with new statehouse control

Bills passed by Senate in the first month of Minnesota and Michigan state legislative sessions
Data: The States Project; Table: Madison Dong/Axios Visuals

After being shellacked by Republicans in state legislative races over the last decade, two states where Democrats gained full control in 2022 are passing legislation at a breakneck pace.

Why it matters: Expectations are minimal from a split Congress this cycle, dramatically raising the stakes for down-ballot races in 2024 and beyond.

  • Donors and outside groups are likely to focus more intensely on these state races in 2024.
  • Democrats can keep their momentum "by sending attention and resources to the state legislative level of the ballot to defend against MAGA extremism and continue moving the country forward," said Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Driving the news: The Minnesota Senate and Michigan House passed more bills in the month of January 2023 than during Januaries in the last six sessions combined, per new data from The States Project, an outside Democratic Group.

  • The States Project made historic investments in these state legislative races last cycle, helping the party flip the four chambers it took: Michigan House and Senate, Minnesota Senate and Pennsylvania House.
  • Democrats just won all three critical state special elections in Pennsylvania, cementing their November win and marking the first time in 12 years that their party has a majority in the state House.

Zoom in: In the first three weeks of this session, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had already signed into law one of two spending bills allocating $1.1 billion in new funding for things like affordable housing and small business support.

  • She also signed into law a bill to move Michigan's primary to the early window of the 2024 presidential primary.
  • Minnesota state lawmakers have already passed bills establishing a right to reproductive health, allocating money from the Infrastructure Act to transportation and energy projects, and ensuring that Black and mixed-race people who wear their natural hair have anti-discrimination protections.

The big picture: Republicans still dominate at the state-level, controlling 58 state chambers to Dems' 40 chambers.

  • The GOP employed a new strategy in 2008 to shift their focus to state legislative contests, hoping to control redistricting after the 2010 census.
  • Heading into the 2010 election, the Democratic Party had a 60 to 36 edge over Republicans — and lost 20 chambers to the GOP.
  • The GOP claims 55% of the 7,383 state legislators across the U.S. — leaving Democrats with over 750 fewer legislators.
  • Last year, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) raised a record $50M and their state partners raised $105M to use on targeted races.
  • In the end, their investments worked: 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.

What they're saying: "Republicans must double down on their down-ballot efforts heading into 2024 to retake statehouses across the country and put an end to these devastating policies so we can return to fiscal conservatism,” Michael Joyce, communications director for the Republican State Legislative Committee, told Axios.

  • Federal legislation "has come to a screeching halt," said Adam Pritzker, co-founder of The States Project, so Democrats should treat state legislative elections "like they are the top priority that they are."
  • "But as national lawmakers are stuck in a stalemate, newly elected Democratic majorities at the state level are delivering on key priorities with unprecedented speed."
  • After the tragic shooting at Michigan State University that left at least one dead, state Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks said that "we are prepared to get the job done" on gun safety legislation.
  • Under Republican majorities, this type of legislation has "gone unheard in the halls of the Legislature," Brinks added.

The other side: Meanwhile, lawmakers in GOP-controlled Texas are on their way to expanding legislation restricting transgender student athletes from K-12 up to higher education.

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