The view from elsewhere: This year's hottest contests to control state legislatures

Democrats hope concerns about abortion access will bolster their chances to retake key chambers. But Republicans say President Biden's flagging poll numbers will give GOP candidates an edge.

Voters line-up to cast their ballots during early voting at the Alafaya Branch Library in Orlando, in this Oct. 30, 2020 file photo.

Voters line-up to cast their ballots during early voting at the Alafaya Branch Library in Orlando, in this Oct. 30, 2020 file photo. Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

Buoyed by polls showing strong support for legalized abortion following the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, Democrats are increasingly confident they can win control of key statehouses this year.

“We came into this cycle very clear-eyed about the challenges of this midterm environment,’’ Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told reporters on a call earlier this week. “We know what we're up against but we're making a play to undercut GOP power in the Michigan House and Senate, the Minnesota Senate and New Hampshire House and Senate.’’

Republicans say President Biden’s sagging poll numbers and concerns about the economy will help the GOP flip the Minnesota House and the Colorado, Maine and Nevada House and Senate, among others. The party is also optimistic it will make “meaningful gains” in blue states such as Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and New York.

“Even in states that President Biden won by double digits in 2020, [Democratic] majorities are anything but safe,” said Dee Duncan, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Americans are looking to their state legislatures to serve as a check and balance on the president’s failing economic policies, giving state Republicans an opening to go on offense in places we normally don’t contest. While flipping chambers in these deep blue states will be an uphill battle, we are committed to maximizing the favorable political environment by expanding our map and making Democrats sweat to defend every inch of ground they currently hold.” 

The battle for America’s statehouses reflects a renewed interest in down-ballot races. Last week, Biden sent a fundraising email for the DLCC, saying that ​"state legislatures are the key to stopping Republican abortion bans, attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, bills that undercut our democracy by making it harder for people to vote."

Biden isn’t the first president to wade into legislative politics: former President Barack Obama, a prior member of the Illinois Senate, made a similar appeal in 2016 and endorsed statehouse candidates. On the Republican side, former President Donald Trump has also publicized his picks in down-ballot races.

Both parties are hoping for gains this cycle. Democrats currently control 36 legislative chambers, Republicans hold power in 62. (In Alaska, the parties share power in the House and Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, which is why there are only 99 chambers nationwide.)

Republicans who have embraced Trump in New Hampshire and Michigan are especially vulnerable, Post said. Legislative chambers in both states have seen control toggle between the two parties in recent election cycles.

“Trump endorsed and gave PAC money to Michigan candidates,’’ she said. “In New Hampshire, the GOP has been consumed by the MAGA movement. The GOP is running a slate of anti-abortion extremists particularly in the Senate, a position that is toxic in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state.’’

Democrats are also fighting to prevent Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina from gaining supermajorities, which would give them the ability to override vetos in two states currently led by Democratic governors.

Post acknowledged that the party that holds the White House often struggles during midterm elections.

“We're aware in a potentially challenging midterm environment it may be difficult to flip some of these chambers, but that won’t stop us from trying,’’ she said. “Winning back power at the state legislative level is difficult. Republicans have created structural advantages at this level.’’

Republicans reject the assertion made by Post and other Democrats that the GOP holds a significant fundraising edge. In a memo to donors sent last week, Duncan said Democratic candidates have been bolstered by liberal groups such as EMILY’s List and Everytown for Gun Safety.

“The Democrats have far more national outside spending organizations that play in state legislative races and our job is to fight back against all of them,’’ Duncan wrote. “We don’t have the luxury of relying on reinforcements to come save us. We are the calvary.”

Duncan acknowledged that Republicans also face challenges this cycle. While not specifically mentioning abortion, he noted that “the political environment has changed significantly in recent months and now looks a lot more like 2020 than 2021.” 

Daniela Altimari is a reporter at Route Fifty, where this story was first published. 

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