(WASHINGTON) — Democrats are touting a new mantra to anyone who will listen as the election cycle ramps up: 2024 is “the year of the states.”
Amid growing handwringing over President Joe Biden’s reelection chances, a brutal Senate map and an anticipated knife fight for the House of Representatives, Democrats are elevating the importance of state legislative races next year in an attempt to shore up a string of key wins and establish a bulwark in case Republicans make inroads in Washington.
Democrats are looking to build on momentum after major victories last month in Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia as state legislatures find themselves at the vanguard of deciding everything from abortion access to voting rights to congressional maps. Democrats hope victories in crucial states can help Biden’s chances — and hurt former President Donald Trumps — in 2024. And, in a stark departure from the 2010s when such races were barely on Democrats’ radar, the party is ready to open the funding spigot.
“As we look to ’24, the impact and the necessity to pay attention to the states has never been greater. And as we think about ’24 being the year of the states and really needing to continue to build off of what we have already created there is absolutely an energy, I think there’s more attention on this ballot level than ever before,” Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), told ABC News in an interview.
Democrats are eyeing an advantageous map in the battle for state legislative chambers next year, including possible pickup opportunities in the Arizona state legislature, Pennsylvania Senate, New Hampshire House and more. Meanwhile, they’re defending narrow majorities in the Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania state Houses and looking to break GOP supermajorities in Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina — which all have Democratic governors.
To bolster their efforts, the DLCC is anticipated to spend about $60 million in the 2024 cycle. And at a time when other party campaign groups are seeing a dip in online fundraising, the DLCC is seeing its numbers rise.
It is preparing a potential seven-figure investment in state races, according to details shared first with ABC News. That includes nearly $260,000, with another $800,000 investment contingent on campaigns that meet the DLCC’s investment standards.
That includes nearly $83,000 to protect the Michigan House, $70,000 targeting both chambers of the Arizona legislature, $50,000 to flip the New Hampshire House, $30,000 to protect the Pennsylvania House, $24,000 to make gains in both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature and $15,000 to break Republicans’ supermajority in the North Carolina House.
Democrats are also expected to heavily compete in states where they have no chance of clinching a legislative chamber, but can cut into Republicans’ advantage.
“We don’t need to win them back to make a huge difference. We don’t need to control the state legislature with a 50% majority to be able to make a huge difference for the people of that state. Getting the 45%, getting the 40% can be a huge victory at a legislative negotiating table in some of these redder states,” said Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist who worked on legislative races in Virginia and the abortion referendum in Ohio last month.
Democrats argue the initial investments match the seriousness with which Democrats must approach state races next year as former President Donald Trump and Republicans in his mold run for offices up and down the ballot.
“We have to build on our progress. It’s really important for us, especially if we’re in an election where President Biden is facing Donald Trump, that we still continue to understand the power that happens in states,” said Jessica Post, the DLCC’s president emerita, who is widely credited with spearheading the charge to get Democrats to shift focus back to state elections.
“Now that we have even more power in states, we need to hold on to that power and grow that power because of challenges that might come from the federal government,” Post said. “So, it’s always going to be an important bulwark.”
The DLCC’s work marks the latest phase of its rebound from the Obama era, when strategists say Democrats ignored state races and handed Republicans massive majorities in chambers across the country.
Democrats were down to just 29 Democratic majorities across the states in 2016 — what Post called an “all-time low.”
“For a lot of time the Republicans understood the real power in the states, and a lot of our party thought ‘Oh, this is just a farm team feeder for when you get the real power, when you’re in the U.S. Congress,"” said Post, who added that Washington Democrats with a federal focus are opening their eyes to states’ importance.
But through what Post described as a strategy of chipping away, Democrats were able to claw back seats to the point where more Americans live under Democratic gubernatorial and state legislative trifectas than under GOP trifectas.
Races in 2022 helped solidify the DLCC’s arguments that Democrats should focus and could win state legislative races, flipping the Minnesota Senate and both chambers of Michigan’s legislature, given Democrats trifectas in each state, flipping the Pennsylvania House and protecting majorities elsewhere.
Those wins, combined with a smattering of victories in 2023 and the Supreme Court’s overturning of federal abortion rights, helped generate the momentum that the DLCC is trying to ride into next year, strategists said.
“I think we’re trying to continue the momentum of rectifying the damage done between 2010 and 2020,” said Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run For Something, which recruits candidates for legislative races. “In particular, seeing the damage that state legislators have done to abortion access, to voting rights … really reinforces the need to put good leaders in these offices even and maybe especially in states where we’re not going to win the electoral college, or it’s a really long shot. It matters who is running the show, otherwise.”
State legislative races also matter with the White House, Senate and House of Representatives all up for grabs. Beyond the prospect of full GOP control in Washington necessitating conversations about a Democratic bulwark, research from Run For Something suggested Democrats’ chances in the nation’s capital could hinge on how well they run in state capitals.
“Simply contesting a state legislative race can increase turnout for the top of the ticket by anywhere from half a percent to over 2% in that precinct or in that district. That can be the margin of victory,” Litman said.
Still, Litman said warning signs are lurking.
“I think that 2023 has been a really hard year, and we have seen a dip basically across the board. Now some of the Virginia races were pretty well-funded, but even towards the end, I know there were campaigns that were struggling. I think the organizations on the ground that exist beyond Election Day have holistically been struggling. That is a huge problem,” she told ABC News.
And while Democrats have clearly increased the recognition of state races’ importance, some who spoke to ABC News reflected that how much money the DLCC and others dump into elections in 2024 could gauge how much Democrats can walk and chew gum amid intense focus on Congress and the White House.
“The attention and focus that has been built in these last years is some of the greatest,” said Simone Leiro, a spokesperson for The States Project, which invested $60 million in state races in 2022. “It will also be what determines whether, even in a crowded year, state legislatures are still beating treated with the attention that they deserve.”
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