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Democrats made historic gains at the state level. Can they build on them?

Democrats’ wins in the Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania state legislatures are fragile.

Michigan state Rep. Kyra Bolden speaks during a Get Out the Vote Rally in Detroit on October 29, ahead of the midterm elections.
Dominick Sokotoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers state politics and policy for Vox, focusing on personalities, conversations, and political battles happening in state capitals and why they matter to the entire country. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Democrats had good results in the November midterm elections, but particularly so in state capitols. Whether they can repeat their performance remains an open question.

They defended slim majorities, and flipped a few chambers in the key battleground states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota.

It’s the first time since 1934 that the party of the incumbent president didn’t lose a single state legislative chamber. This year’s midterms were an uncharacteristically strong showing from Democrats, who have previously struggled to compete with more than a decade of Republican dominance at the state level. Democratic state legislatures now govern more people than those controlled by Republicans, even though the GOP still won marginally more seats overall.

But people who have been working on building Democratic power in the states for years say it’s not a transformation that occurred overnight, nor is it complete. The majorities that Democrats held and won are narrow and vulnerable. They face a persistent problem of down-ballot roll-off, where Democrats at the top of the ticket outperform state legislative candidates. And Republicans still control a big majority of state legislative chambers, with a well-oiled political machine designed to help them maintain that control.

It will take more investment — in terms of time, money, and organization — to not only shore up those Democratic majorities, but to go on offense. The stakes have perhaps never been higher, as state legislatures are ground zero for some of the biggest political questions facing the country, including the future of abortion rights and elections.

“Democrats are tardy to the party,” said Lala Wu, the co-founder and director of Sister District, a group that aims to flip Republican-controlled state legislative chambers. “Republicans have been working to get these ideas into folks’ heads, from the academy to mass media to voters. They’ve always talked about local and state control and federalism. And Democrats have unfortunately just rested too much and overrelied on federal power.”

How Republicans consolidated power at the state level

Republicans have long dominated at the state level, controlling more state legislative seats than Democrats since 2010. They have become incubators for national Republican policy, with states like Texas and Florida recently leading the way on controversial topics, including, for example, limiting discussion of racism and LGBTQ issues in public schools.

Republicans’ success at the state level is the product of a multi-decade effort that dates back to at least 1994. That year, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich debuted his “Contract with America,” which set a unified, 10-point agenda for GOP candidates nationwide that focused on increasing defense funding, welfare reform, an expansion of US prisons, and delivering tax cuts, primarily for corporations and wealthy Americans.

Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses a Republican rally on Capitol Hill upon completion of the “Contract With America” on April 7, 1995.
Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images

Republicans went on to win the US House for the first time since 1954 that year, and captured both chambers across 19 state legislatures. Those victories paved the way for a network of conservative organizations — including the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC — to flourish, bolstering a policy-focused approach to Republican politics at the state level.

Founded in 1973 by right-wing activists and state legislators, ALEC became what Gingrich has described as the “the most effective organization” at developing state policies that advance conservatism and federalism. It functions as a membership-based organization for corporations and state lawmakers to cooperate in drafting model legislation that can be easily replicated and adapted across the nation. An investigation by USA TODAY, the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity found that, from 2010 to 2018, model bills developed by ALEC were introduced almost 2,900 times and ultimately became law in over 600 cases.

“They’re really effective at originating and then disseminating and experimenting with conservative legislation and having it transfer around from state to state,” Wu said. (ALEC did not respond to a request for comment.)

That sort of centralized policymaking and planning boosted Republicans as they pursued their so-called “REDMAP” strategy, or “Redistricting Majority Project,” in 2010. Under that plan, the party poured money into unseating vulnerable Democrats and flipping chambers in the leadup to redistricting, the decennial process in which states — usually led by legislatures — determine legislative districts based on census data. And the work of ALEC, and others, gave the party a unified message to run on.

It was a seismic shift in terms of how Republicans approached redistricting, ushering in a new era of state and national coordination, said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP strategist in Michigan. Their nationalized policy platform also helped Republicans foster confidence among the electorate, and to cement their reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility: “People generally will trust Republicans to be better stewards of tax money and delivering services,” Cabel Roe said.

That year, Republicans took control of both chambers in 25 states, including several that they hadn’t controlled since the 1870s. Consequently, they were able to preside over the redistricting in 2010 and again in 2020, creating electoral maps that would make it hard for Democrats to claw their way back into power.

“The Republican REDMAP strategy enabled them to have a really striking takeover of state legislatures and to gerrymander themselves to power for the next decade. And unfortunately, we’re still feeling the effects of that,” Wu said.

What Democrats did right in 2022

This election cycle saw historic investment in state legislative contests by Democrats after years of being severely outspent and of losing by hundreds or even tens of votes in critical races.

Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — the fundraising arm of the Democratic Party dedicated to state legislative races — said that the DLCC spent more than $50 million this cycle, $18 million more than it did in 2018. By comparison, the DLCC’s GOP counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent about $42 million, less than half what it spent in 2020 as redistricting loomed, and about $7 million less than it spent in 2018. The DLCC also sent a team of finance directors to work with state legislative leaders and raise a total of $105 million, mostly from their safe incumbents, to bolster their bids for majorities.

Outside groups, including the Democratic-aligned Forward Majority PAC and the States Project, a group focused on advancing Democratic power at the state level, were also big players.

Democratic state Sen. Erin Murphy speaks at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on November 9. Minnesota Democrats defied expectations in the midterm elections, winning the governor’s race and both houses of the Legislature to take full control of state government for the first time in eight years.
Trisha Ahmed/Report for America via AP

Forward Majority has a 10-year plan to spend about $70 million in these contests, including $20 million that it already dropped this election cycle. Its strategy is to develop a large-scale operation to compete aggressively in the most important tipping point state legislative races. And the goal this year was to help Democrats try to win dozens of seats across Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Arizona that would deliver chamber flips. Forward Majority also went after seats in Georgia and Texas aimed at strengthening the Democratic caucus in those states. The group ended up helping clinch wins in at least 48 of the 61 total seats it targeted. The States Project spent $60 million across Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine, and Nevada in 2022, investing in many of the same seats as Forward Majority.

A little can go a long way in state legislative contests. Contributions of $500 to $1,000 can be a “consequential investment,” especially in a state like New Hampshire, where there are 400 legislators in the state House presiding over small districts and Democrats are just three seats away from retaking the majority, Post said. But some races are more expensive than others; Post said that the DLCC and its partners spent $23 million to flip the Michigan Senate alone.

Adam Pritzker, one of the States Project’s founding partners, said that national Democrats still need to devote more resources to state legislatures: The Democratic National Committee did not contribute a single dollar to the DLCC this cycle.

“The national party really failed to appropriately invest. I hope we can rectify that going forward,” he said.

Post said that the DLCC has been “ringing the alarm on that resource gap” since she first joined in 2016, and that additional investment from national Democrats will be necessary both to defend new majorities and make states like Texas more competitive.

Beyond the dollar amount spent, Democratic groups employed their other resources strategically this cycle as well.

Post said that she had a “no surprises” policy going into 2022. That meant hiring regional political directors who could engage deeply in the states under their purview, and do so early in the cycle while keeping eyes on the entire map. In addition to vying for new majorities, the DLCC wanted to ward off potential losses in longstanding Democratic chambers, including those that were not considered to be competitive, but turned out to be, such as the Nevada Assembly and the Oregon House.

“I think we did a really good job of watching our flank,” Post said.

Pritzker said that the States Project also saw success in supporting these kinds of organizational efforts. His group invested in professionalizing campaigns by helping them hire staff, running tested TV ads that were unique to each race, helping candidates get local press, and incentivizing candidates to knock on doors rather than dialing for dollars.

“Most of this stuff is best practices in every major House and Senate campaign in America. We just brought that same toolkit to these races,” he said.

Forward Majority’s co-founder Vicky Hausman said that the organization searched for “every single unexploited opportunity at the district and race level that allows us to fight for the votes that no one else is targeting at this stage.” For example, it collected 20,000 voter registration applications in neglected districts where Republicans made up half the electorate in an attempt to boost Democrats’ edge.

Factors in the national political environment also broke Democrats’ way. New electoral maps drawn by independent commissions made some battles for control of state legislatures more competitive, including in Michigan. And the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade appeared to significantly boost Democratic enthusiasm up and down the ballot.

Protesters attend a meeting of Michigan’s new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in Lansing, Michigan, on October 21, 2021. An Associated Press analysis of election data indicates Michigan’s new state legislative districts reduced the built-in advantage Republicans had enjoyed over the previous decade.
Carlos Osorio/AP

Both the DLCC and outside funders foresaw the opportunity presented by the national environment, and crafted a narrative about the imperative need to aggressively push back against Republican dominance at this particular political moment. Democrats worried that state Republicans in critical battlegrounds, including those who campaigned on the notion that they would have attempted to subvert the election in 2020, would be well-positioned to try to overturn the results in 2024. And they feared that state Republicans would try to enact further restrictions on abortion or enforce pre-Roe bans in some states. As Post wrote in a post-election memo, Democrats “drove the narrative of the existential threat the GOP posed to our democracy” and sought to “capitalize on [the abortion issue] at every turn.”

They were largely able to neutralize those threats, at least for now.

“Most folks we spoke with thought we were crazy to try to flip the legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, given the outlook this year,” Hausman said. “But we knew there were new maps, we knew there were many conflicting data points about the electoral environment we were in. And we knew the consequences and stakes were just too great not to try to compete.”

How Democrats can defend and build on their progress

Democrats’ historic gains in state legislatures are still fragile. To defend against Republican efforts to retake chambers and to advance their own agenda at a moment when they can’t pass their priorities at the federal level, they will have to invest more heavily in these races going forward. Voting rights legislation, redistricting reform, paid family leave, and other social and economic policies will hinge on it.

They don’t even have to wait until 2024 to get started. There are elections in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana where Sister District and other organizations will be making plays in 2023. They’re trying to help Democrats take back the House in Virginia, and they see Mississippi and Louisiana as states that suffer from “deep underinvestment where a little bit can go a really long way,” Wu said.

Then, in 2024, Democrats face the challenge of fending off Republican supermajorities in Wisconsin and North Carolina, and at least holding the line elsewhere.

Wu said that Democrats have to be prepared for Republicans to “learn from their mistakes” in the 2022 midterms, namely running low-quality candidates with extreme views who were out of touch with voters. She predicted that they will instead run a playbook that draws on their success in Virginia, where they ran a diverse slate of candidates, focused on local issues such as public schools, and made strategic early investments.

To that end, some Republicans in states where Democrats made gains have already started to articulate strategic changes. In Michigan, where Republicans saw some of their most devastating losses this cycle, that includes recruiting “high quality, substantive candidates” — not just those with connections to Trump — and ensuring that they can attract robust fundraising, according to a post-election memo penned by Paul Cordes, the state GOP’s chief of staff, and obtained by the Detroit Free Press.

“As a Party, we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the Party, mostly within the donor class,” he wrote. “That power struggle ended with too many people on the sidelines and hurt Republicans in key races.”

Cabel Roe said that without good candidates and money, Republicans in the state were indeed left “trying to figure out a way to stitch all the other elements of a winning campaign together with duct tape and spit.”

“We’re going to have to make a decision: if we’re going to adopt a more politically attractive image, or if we’re going to continue to just wrap ourselves around a MAGA agenda and lose,” he added.

As Republicans regroup, Democrats can’t afford to waste any time in making early investments to bolster their organizing infrastructure, local and state parties, and chamber caucuses.

Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton speaks in Philadelphia on November 7. Three House seats won by Democrats in November are now vacant, and McClinton has scheduled special elections for all three seats on February 7. Control of the Pennsylvania House depends on the results.
Matt Rourke/AP

Year-round and off-year voter contact is also important, and that’s where grassroots organizations can come in: “By the time campaigns are stood up and candidates and staffers are talking to voters in the election context, voters are already primed and ready and understand the importance,” Wu said.

But Democrats also need to play the long game in state capitols, Hausman said. They need to be building their operations in places where majorities will almost certainly be out of reach for years, including Texas and Georgia.

“We need to start investing now in places, geographies, districts, that may not come online for several more election cycles, which will be essential to actually control these chambers before the next redistricting cycle,” she said. “Democrats in no way can rest on their laurels, but very much will need to be, again, aggressively defending these hard-won majorities and continuing to fight.”