Democrats are framing races for seats in key statehouses as crucial for the future of abortion access, warning that flipping chambers blue or blocking Republican supermajorities will be key after the Supreme Court left the issue up to the states.
In the weeks since the court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed federal abortion rights, Democrats have pointed to a convergence of new fundraising hauls and polling data to indicate that abortion access will mobilize their voters and others in November.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the main fundraising arm for the party’s state legislative races, has a campaign focusing on Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire in an attempt to flip chambers or make long-term inroads. The group also wants to protect existing political power in Colorado, New Mexico, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada. Other abortion-rights and left-leaning groups have emphasized trying to prevent Republican supermajorities in states including North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin, where Democratic governors still have veto power over Republican-led statehouses.
The DLCC and its affiliated organizations announced this month that it raised a record $6.75 million during the second quarter of the year, a total that the group says is tied in part to the Roe decision.
“Voters are outraged at Republicans’ stunning efforts to roll back our fundamental rights, and they understand that we must defeat them in state legislatures across the country,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in a statement.
Republicans are targeting many of the same states, though with a focus on the economy. The party has long invested more heavily in statehouse races than Democrats. And while the Democrats’ state legislative fundraising arm posted a record second quarter, it was still outraised by the Republican State Leadership Committee.
The RSLC, which did not respond to a request for comment, announced this month that it and an affiliated group had raised $9.8 million for the quarter. It has also pointed to internal polling to argue that voters are more focused on the economic effects of rising inflation and high gas prices than abortion rights.
The RSLC said in a public memo that it tapped polling firm Cygnal after the Roe decision to gauge public feedback. Among the firm’s findings: Thirty-seven percent of poll respondents said the high cost of living and inflation was their most important issue. That was followed by the economy in general at 16 percent. Abortion polled at eight percent.
“While abortion is an issue people care about, the data makes clear that it is not among the top issues that will drive voting behavior in November,” said RSLC President Dee Duncan in the memo. “Instead, this election will remain about Biden’s failing economy.”
Republicans say they have set their sights on flipping statehouses in Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. They also want to flip the Minnesota House chamber.
The Republicans’ strategy on state legislative races appears to mirror Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, who have pivoted to similar talking points about the economy since the Roe ruling.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said her data indicates that voters may be more likely to turn out for Democratic candidates campaigning on abortion. The number of Democrats who say they are much more likely to vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion jumped from 17 percent in 2020 to 43 percent after the Roe decision.
“People have become more pro choice as they reflect upon losing this right,” she said.
For now, Republicans have the upper hand with political power in state legislatures. They hold majorities in 30 of the country’s statehouses. (Democrats hold power in 17 statehouses; another three are split control.) Republicans also have 23 trifectas, with control of both legislative chambers as well as the governor’s office. They’ve used some of that power to pass policies that include abortion restrictions, anti-LGBTQ+ bills and restrictions on voting.
It’s a reality that some Democrats have acknowledged comes from the GOP’s long-term investment in races outside of Congress. ActBlue, a fundraising platform used by many Democratic candidates and causes, said it received $89 million between the morning that the Roe decision was announced and the end of the month at midnight, but it’s unclear how much of that will go to statehouse races.
There are signs that national Democrats are paying attention to statehouses. On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Indianapolis to meet with Democratic lawmakers ahead of a special legislative session where Republicans, who have a trifecta of power in the state, are expected to pass a near-total abortion ban. Harris has scheduled a series of stops around the country where she will emphasize the importance of state legislatures and governor’s races to the future of abortion policy.
“I think a perennial problem among donors on the left is that they give to shiny objects, and they are very focused on what happens at the federal level,” said Lala Wu, co-founder and executive director of Sister District, which helps Democratic candidates run in statehouses. “And it’s not necessarily any individual’s fault, but this is a result of an underinvestment by the Democratic infrastructure in the state level for decades. And in the meantime, Republicans have been busy building power at all levels of governments, particularly at the state level, for over 50 years.”
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Sister District said a recent push that featured actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus fundraising for statehouse races where abortion is on the line netted more than $400,000 within days. The money will be split with Democratic legislative candidates around the country.
Michelle Au, a Democratic state senator in Georgia who is now running for a seat in the state House, is expected to be one of the recipients. Au said the money will allow her to hire more field staff for canvassing and other logistics.
“When we talk about fundraising for a legislative race, the money goes a lot farther than donating to a presidential race, which is like a drop in the bucket,” Au said.
Au, who became the first Asian woman elected to the state Senate, is a physician who has advocated for abortion protections in the statehouse. This month, a six-week abortion ban tied to a 2019 law went into effect. She said it’s part of why giving Democrats control in the chamber is so important for future policy.
“In a state like Georgia, I think this really puts more emphasis on these state legislative races that, let’s be honest, often fall beneath the radar for a lot of people,” she said.
Sara Tabatabaie is a spokesperson for #VOTEPROCHOICE, an organization that works to mobilize voters and elect to local and state offices people who support abortion. She said it’s important for Democrats to understand that investment in statehouse races will need to stretch beyond one election cycle.
“There are a lot of people who are asking themselves right now: ‘Roe v. Wade is gone. How can we get it back?’ And we’re not getting Roe v. Wade back. So we have to rebuild these protections right now from the ground up,” she said. “And that takes investment. So what I want to make sure is very clear to voters and to candidates is we see progress when we keep showing up to do the thing, over and over.”
Among the priority states for Democrats are places where political power might be determined by a few thousand votes.
Simone Leiro, a spokesperson for the States Project, an advocacy organization that is funding efforts to win Democratic majorities in state legislatures that protect abortion, pointed to examples from past cycles. Flipping more than 600 votes would have preserved Democrats’ Virginia House majority in 2021, she said. The New Hampshire Senate would have stayed under Democratic control in 2020 with a little over 680 votes. Those margins are smaller when you look at individual races.
“Helping folks understand just how razor thin these margins are is really, really important,” she said.
Parties and their supporters are also looking into states where a competitive governor’s race may encourage voter turnout since the officeholder can codify or veto policy that moves through a legislature.
That includes Michigan, where Republicans control the legislature but Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking reelection. Whitmer has been vocal about her support for abortion access while the legality of a nearly century-old abortion ban on the books is being reviewed in the courts.
It also includes Pennsylvania. Republicans control the state legislature and are looking to build a trifecta since Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is termed out from running again. The open governor’s race between Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano and Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro has focused on abortion in recent days, with Mastriano committing to restrict abortion. At the statehouse, Republicans passed a bill to limit abortion protections in the state constitution, a proposal that will need approval again in the next legislative session.
“Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to ban abortion and bypass the governor’s veto power by amending our state’s constitution. This could be a moment where Republicans really solidify this strategy and set an example for other states to continue to strip away our rights,” said Carrie Santoro, executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, an independent political organization that advocates for issues like labor and housing rights. “The only thing in Pennsylvania that has stood between us and a couple of abortion bans has been having a Democratic governor who has vetoed at least three bills that passed all the way through our state legislature since he took office.”
Lake said that while the economy and inflation are top issues for people, abortion can turn out voters.
“Abortion can often be the number one voting issue. Because if you think about it, who’s got a good plan on inflation? Voters think nobody’s doing anything on inflation. Who’s got a cure for gas prices? Nobody’s got a cure for gas prices. This is an issue that’s crystal clear. The distinction is crystal clear. And that makes it more of a voting issue. So I think in close races, this can mobilize voters, this can turn enough swing voters.”