Democrats make history with state-level gains — and that could be crucial for democracy

Republicans have dominated state-level politics for over a decade, holding a large majority of both governorships and legislative chambers. But with the 2022 midterms, Democrats have begun to turn the tables — flipping legislative chambers in several states where partisan battles over democracy and abortion rights have dominated Democratic messaging.

In at least three legislative chambers, Democrats have apparently made history, taking control of both chambers in the Michigan legislature and the Minnesota state Senate. Democrats in Pennsylvania also claim they have won a majority in the statehouse, although votes continue to be counted and that result is not yet official.

In Michigan, Democrats haven’t controlled the state Senate since 1984, but now hold a trifecta in Lansing with control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer easily won a second term, largely vowing to fight “like hell” for abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, who was backed by former President Trump, supported a near-total ban on abortion and remained a prominent election denier. 

Michigan also passed a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution. Legislative Democrats have already started discussing their plans to codify that constitutional amendments and repeal a 1931 law that criminalizes abortion.

In Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as state Democrats have been known since 1944) now control both the state House and Senate, along with the offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor, InForum reported. That combination hasn’t happened since 2014.

DFL members have begun floating ideas about codifying abortion rights, passing paid family leave and approving marijuana for recreational use, according to CBS

In one of the nation’s most closely-watched gubernatorial races, Katie Hobbs became the first Democrat elected as Arizona governor since 2006, narrowly defeating former TV newscaster Kari Lake, a longtime Trump ally who falsely claimed the 2020 election was rigged and repeatedly refused to say she would accept the results of her race if she lost. 

On the campaign trail, Hobbs promised to protect abortion rights in the Grand Canyon State, where a state judge ruled that a total abortion ban must be enforced after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Hobbs can also veto any dramatic election changes suggested by Trump allies in the Republican-dominated legislature, including getting rid of early voting and mail-in ballots.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats are inching closer to taking control of the state House for the first time in 12 years. Should they prevail, Democratic lawmakers hope to advance an agenda that will include laws enshrining abortion rights, increasing the minimum wage and allowing early counting of mail ballots, WHYY reported.

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The pro-Democratic super PAC Forward Majority invested more than $20 million in state legislative races this year, with the majority of its funds going to support candidates in 25 districts across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

“We got started in 2017 when we saw how much chronic underinvestment there had been in state legislative races and the consequences,” said Vicky Hausman, a co-founder of Forward Majority. Those consequences were seen in multiple areas, she continued: “Both in terms of democracy with unprecedented gerrymandering on the Republican side and voter suppression, but also how these unrepresentative majorities were increasingly affecting every issue women care about.”

With the Supreme Court set to rule in December on Moore v. Harper, a case that could grant state legislatures nearly unchecked authority over federal elections, Forward Majority wanted to focus on states “where there were the greatest threats to democracy,” Hausman said. 

Prior to the midterm elections, Republicans held full legislative control in every major battleground state, she added. If the “independent state legislature” theory is affirmed by the Supreme Court, it could become possible for legislators to throw out election results they don’t like and appoint their own presidential electors. 

“We saw that there was an opportunity to win majorities in the legislatures in Michigan. Pennsylvania and Arizona,” Hausman said. “That would essentially bring the number of Electoral College votes where Republicans control the full legislature down under the 270 threshold” required to elect a president. “We had an opportunity to win these legislatures and build a bulwark against the worst threats of the independent state legislature theory.”

Jan. 6 was “version 1.0 of Trump trying to steal the election,” Hausman said. “What he ran up against was his inability to have legislators actually change their [electoral] votes.”

Many legal experts believe that four of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have issued opinions indicating that they are likely endorse the independent state legislature theory. The potential consequences could be chaotic: State legislatures would presumably then have the ability to bypass the popular vote in their states and send their own slates of electors to Congress, provoking an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis.

“The insurrection at the Capitol was version 1.0 of Trump trying to steal the election,” Hausman said. “What he ran up against was his inability to have legislators actually change their votes. That’s the weak spot, that’s where a second potential coup and insurrection might succeed. Legislators have been core to Trump’s plans to overturn the next election.”

Democrats have underinvested in state legislative races for decades, Hausman added, often neglecting them entirely. When it comes to protecting and reforming democracy, she said, these races sometimes matter more than the headline-grabbing contests at the top of the ballot.  

“I hope this election can be a demonstration of what’s possible in terms of the wins themselves, but also what follows in the months and years ahead in terms of what we can do with power,” Hausman said. “I hope that this is a galvanizing and helpful moment that leads to increased and sustained investment in these battlegrounds that matter so much, both for democracy and for all these issues we care about.”

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