At a farm in central Indiana, Aimee Rivera Cole got on a stage and made a plea to a socially-distanced crowd.
It had been just over a week since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, and Cole, a Democrat running for Indiana’s House of Representatives, was at an event with several other local candidates. Cole began listing everything that was at stake with Ginsburg’s passing: abortion access, affordable health care, environmental protections and LGBTQ+ rights.
All were already topics central to Cole’s campaign, which she announced at the beginning of the year. But Ginsburg’s death, with less than two months before the November election, had given her a new sense of urgency.
“We don’t have that safety net guaranteed anymore at the federal level,” the 44-year-old Cole told the audience.
Congressional hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s pick to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, begin on Monday, kicking off a confirmation process that many expect will be one of the most politically polarizing court fights ever. Republicans control the Senate, and they have indicated their support for moving through the process quickly.
The urgency and speed is seen by many as controversial given that in 2016, nine months before that year’s presidential election, Republicans refused to nominate Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s pick to replace Justice Antonin Scalia after his sudden death. At the time, many Republicans justified their action by saying an outgoing president should not select a justice in the year of a presidential election, and they vowed if political party fortunes were reversed, they would not rush through a justice. Several Republicans have gone back on that word, while others have held themselves to that precedent. Senate Democrats have almost no chance at stopping the confirmation.
For Democrats, Trump’s selection of Barrett has raised concerns that a more conservative court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected the right to have an abortion. Trump has said publicly that his Supreme Court nominees will be “pro-life.” Barrett said in 2016 that though she doesn’t think abortion or the right to abortion would change, some restrictions would. In 2006, she added her signature to a newspaper ad that supported overturning Roe v. Wade.
If the landmark decision were overturned, the legality of abortion would be determined by state legislatures.
This is why Democratic groups are reminding their supporters of the importance of statehouse races. The groups believe the key to ensuring access to abortion — among other issues — doesn’t end up before a more conservative Supreme Court is to focus on local legislatures that will stop what they view as bad laws.
“With the painful loss of Justice Ginsburg, state legislative races have only become more important,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, during a recent press call. “Because these chambers are now the last line of defense in protecting the fundamental rights of women, working families and other vulnerable communities.”
Of the 7,383 statehouse seats in America, more than 5,800, or 80 percent, are up for grabs this November. EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, says it has endorsed 700 women candidates for state and local office around the country this election cycle, a record 30 percent of them women of color. The organization is trying to flip chambers in 11 states, including Arizona, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, a continuance of a trend started in 2018, when six legislative chambers switched from Republican to Democrat.
Democrats point to victories in states like New York to show the importance of power at the statehouse level. In 2019, a new Democratic-led statehouse codified abortion rights spelled out in Roe and other court rulings; it also expanded access to late-term abortions when a woman’s health is endangered. Illinois, Rhode Island and Vermont followed suit that year with legislation that effectively guarantees a person’s right to an abortion.
Also in 2019, Democrats gained a majority in both chambers of the Virginia statehouse, a first in 25 years. Their legislature went on to repeal several abortion restrictions.
Earlier this month, Democrats in New Jersey, including its governor, announced plans to also introduce a bill to codify abortion rights into state law. It is considered the first state to announce plans for state-level action since the Supreme Court vacancy was announced. The legislation will require private insurers to cover birth control and abortion care with no out-of-pocket costs.
Planned Parenthood’s political action committee has invested $45 million this election cycle, including recently launching voter guides to highlight the records of candidates nationwide over reproductive rights.
“We live in a tale of two worlds, where access to health care depends on where you live. It depends on your zip code,” said Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, director of state media campaigns for Planned Parenthood. “It depends on whether you have a reproductive health care-and-rights majority in your statehouse. It depends on whether your governor is willing to veto an anti-abortion legislation that comes out of your statehouse.”
Democratic groups have been trying to strengthen its statehouse power for years, rebuilding ranks after Republicans took control of several legislatures following the 2010 midterm election. Republicans have faced accusations of later gerrymandering maps to favor their party during the redistricting process.
Amanda Litman is co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, a group that helps young Democratic candidates run for office or get involved in politics. A few days after Ginsburg’s death, with news coverage centered largely on the ramifications of a contentious nomination process and a surge of interest in competitive U.S. Senate races, Litman tweeted: “If we want to protect reproductive freedom, we *have* to win state legislatures.”
Litman, who created Run for Something after the 2016 election, has long worked under the philosophy that building a pipeline of Democrats now will pay off in future generations of politicians.
“I think we forget where the source of the problem starts,” she said. “Democrats especially tend to lose sight of the bigger structural problem.”
But Litman said statehouses play an even bigger role this election cycle. Many policies governing abortion access in recent years have been made into law in statehouses.
Thirty-three states enacted nearly 480 abortion restrictions between January 2011 and May 2019, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Some of those abortion restrictions were later struck down in litigation.
“If you want to stop bad laws, start by changing the people who make them. And that starts with state legislatures and city councils. But in particular, when it comes to laws that come before the Supreme Court, it’s state legislatures,” she said. “The laws that will get challenged to overturn Roe v. Wade are not congressional. It’s the Louisiana and Texas and Alabama and Georgia laws.”
Ann Johnson, a Democrat running for the Texas House of Representatives, has highlighted reproductive rights in her campaign. She is among a group of Democrats trying to flip the chamber. Johnson said she saw a surge in donations following Ginsburg’s death. More people have also been reaching out about volunteer opportunities.
“I think people are in a heightened moment of awareness of what it means to try to protect women’s rights in Texas, in which we’ve had a long history of Republicans taking it away,” she said.
But there may be a limit to that surge in fundraising. Jessica Post is president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps support candidates running for state legislatures. It has invested $35 million in down ballot races this cycle. It’s on track to raise $50 million.
“We’ve certainly raised more funds. But relative to what we’ve seen in the U.S. Senate level, it has not kept pace. And I think what maybe Democratic donors are not understanding is, in order to rebuild reproductive choice with this court, we need to rebuild in the states,” she said.
Litman said it’s also important to invest in statehouse races in conservative areas of the country.
Some Democrats are running potentially competitive races with less than $50,000, a contrast to U.S. Senate races with millions of dollars. Although Run for Something is investing in statehouse races that Democrats believe can flip chambers, it’s also helping candidates in heavily Republican-controlled statehouses.
“The really bad abortion laws are going to come from the places that national organizations aren’t really investing in,” she said. “So we have a responsibility to, especially in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, support state legislative candidates there. Because a little bit will go a long way.”
In Indiana, Cole first went up against her Republican opponent, Todd Huston, in 2016 and lost by 9 percentage points. This year, ahead of their rematch, he became speaker of the House. Cole said Democrats are just one seat away from breaking a supermajority that Republicans have in the chamber, which will be important even if they’re not close to flipping it completely.
“If we don’t break the supermajority, we will have no say in how the lines are drawn,” she said. “Which means we’ll just continue to lose power.”
The Republican State Leadership Committee, the fundraising arm for statehouse and statewide races, has publicly applauded Trump’s pick of Barrett. But in recent weeks, it has focused more of its attention on warning against new Democratic-led statehouses that would determine redistricting for the next decade.
Conservative groups have stepped in to highlight the importance of Barrett’s nomination. Susan B. Anthony’s List, a national group that backs anti-abortion candidates, has been vocal about its support for Barrett and says it has launched a six-figure digital ad in favor of her confirmation. Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, is traveling around the country with supporters in a pink bus with the words “Women for Amy” on its side.
Cole said she has thought a lot about Ginsburg in the final weeks of her campaign. She admired the late justice so much that she dressed up as her for Halloween last year. The two share a birthday, and about 10 years ago, Cole, also a lawyer, said she was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer. Her chances of survival were low, like Ginsburg’s. Cole said it’s stressful to balance her legal work, her family and the campaign.
“I just have to keep reminding myself, first of all: Justice Ginsburg, she was a mom and went to school and took care of her husband who had cancer and went to his classes for him and she did it,” she said. “And I have to. It gives me motivation to keep fighting.”