On Capitol Hill, Democratic ambitions aren’t what they used to be. Two years ago, the party’s leadership aimed to enact the most profound transformation of U.S. infrastructure since Eisenhower, the largest expansion of social welfare since LBJ, and the most progressive reforms of U.S. labor law since FDR. Now its main aspiration is to prevent Congress from deliberately engineering a global depression.
With a Republican majority running the House (however haphazardly) and the GOP favored to capture the Senate in 2024, prospects for progressive reform at the federal level don’t look great in the near term. Merely preventing the U.S. from defaulting on debts it can pay in a currency it prints is beginning to look like a “reach” goal for the 118th Congress.
But the states are a different story.
Earlier this month, the Democratic Party assumed full control of Michigan’s state government for the first time in four decades. Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s party immediately moved to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, abolish its abortion ban, repeal its anti-union “right to work” law, and extended anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ Michiganders.
Moving west of the Great Lakes, a new Democratic trifecta has taken power in Minnesota. Under Governor Tim Walz’s leadership, the party hopes to codify abortion rights, establish paid family and medical leave, create a new child-care tax credit, and enforce clean-energy policies that would decarbonize its economy by 2040.
Back east, in the deep-blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts, Democrats have finally pried back governors’ mansions from moderate Republicans, clearing the way for a spate of progressive reforms. All together, Democrats now boast full control in 17 state capitols. Republicans still enjoy more state-level trifectas (which is to say control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature), but since blue states tend to be more populous than red ones, more Americans now live under a unified Democratic state government than a unified Republican one.
Considering recent history, this is remarkable. In 2017, Democrats held trifectas in only six states. After making some gains in 2018, the party failed to flip a single statehouse in 2020 — even as its presidential candidate won the popular vote by more than four points.
Thus Democrats had every reason to expect their share of state power to recede after last year’s elections. After all, the president’s party almost always loses ground in midterms, as its base gets complacent while the opposition’s gets even. Indeed, Republicans turned out in higher numbers than Democrats in 2022, and GOP congressional candidates won more total votes nationwide.
Yet Democrats nevertheless gained four new trifectas, won bitterly contested governors’ races (in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and deep-red Kansas), fought off Republican supermajorities in the North Carolina House and the Badger State’s assembly, defeated every single election denier campaigning for secretary of State in an Electoral College battleground, and did not lose control of a single state legislative chamber. That last feat is especially noteworthy: In every midterm election since 1934, the president’s party has forfeited at least one statehouse to the opposition.
The Democrats’ midterm performance was therefore paradoxical. The nationwide vote totals are consistent with a modest “red wave” election, yet Democrats nearly swept the most heavily contested state-level races. In fact, the party performed far better in such races in 2022 (when the national environment favored Republicans by roughly 2.5 points) than in 2020 (when Democrats were favored by 4.5 points).
One can partly attribute these odd results to changes in state legislative maps and the issue environment. But there’s reason to think that the Democrats’ strong state-level results derived from its success in mounting better-funded, more data-driven state legislative campaigns.
Between 2020 and 2022, district maps were redrawn. In Michigan, an independent commission oversaw the redistricting process with an eye toward partisan fairness. Since the state’s previous maps were gerrymandered in the GOP’s favor, the new, less biased maps made it easier for Democrats to compete in the Wolverine State.
Nevertheless, redistricting did not yield friendlier maps for Democrats in every battleground state. And novel maps cannot explain the party’s overperformance in key statewide races such as the gubernatorial elections in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona.
Those results can be better explained by 2022’s peculiar issue environment. In the 2020 election, popular attention was focused on national conflicts in general and those concerning Donald J. Trump in particular. Many of the U.S.’s most pressing policy fights that year were won and lost at the state level, where public-health policies and police reforms are typically made. But the spectacle of a multibillion-dollar presidential campaign likely obscured the stakes of down-ballot contests.
By contrast, both the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the stop-the-steal movement’s unabashed efforts to undermine disinterested election administration put a spotlight on state-level policy-making in 2022. With the constitutional right to an abortion in the dustbin of history, full discretion over reproductive rights returned to the states. And with Trumpist candidates for secretary of State vowing to prevent any repeat of the 2020 election (which featured no discernible perversion of democracy beyond Republican defeat), Americans’ most basic democratic rights started to look contingent on previously mundane state-level races.
The salience of abortion rights in 2022 is visible in the disparate fortunes of Democrats in states where reproductive freedom was all but assured regardless of the election’s outcome (such as New York) and where it was at great risk (such as Michigan). Similarly, Republican candidates for secretary of State and governor who embraced Trump’s narrative about the “stolen” 2022 election tended to underperform.
Still, there’s reason to doubt that this unique issue environment fully explains the disconnect between the Democrats’ national weakness and battleground strength. For one thing, some staunchly anti-abortion Republican governors romped to reelection. The same Georgia electorate that favored Democrat Raphael Warnock over Republican Herschel Walker backed Governor Brian Kemp — who had enacted one of the nation’s most draconian abortion bans — by a 7.5-point margin. Ohio is one of the few states with an even more stringent abortion ban than Georgia, barring the termination of a pregnancy after six weeks even in cases of rape and incest. Nevertheless, even as Democrat Tim Ryan kept his Senate race with J.D. Vance relatively close, the governor who enacted that abortion ban, Mike DeWine, won reelection by 25 points.
Beyond shifting maps and issue environments, there is one other explanation for the Democrats’ overperformance in competitive state-level races: The party has simply become better at politics.
One thing that distinguishes competitive state-level races from the majority of midterm elections is that parties invest a lot more time, money, and attention into the former. Thus if a party got better at optimizing messaging and resource allocation, those improvements would likely be more visible in “purple” areas than in red or blue ones. After all, if you figured out how to make more effective advertisements, the evidence for that would be most apparent in the places where you aired a lot of them. Theoretically then, the emergence of a gap between Democratic performance nationally and in state-level battlegrounds is consistent with the idea that blue America got better at electioneering.
This theory is further buttressed by the fact that Democrats systematically overperformed in federal battleground races. In the House and Senate races where both parties invested the most resources, Democrats fared far better than they did in less competitive states and districts.
On the state level, supporting evidence for this explanation isn’t merely theoretical. For much of the modern political era, Republicans devoted far more resources to state legislative elections than did Democrats, whose most avid donors and committed PACs tended to focus overwhelmingly on federal politics in general and presidential ones in particular. But the Tea Party wave of 2010 alerted many progressives to the high stakes of down-ballot races. As Republicans used full control of several battleground states to draw heavily gerrymandered House maps, crack down on unions, and restrict voting rights, it became evident to many nationally oriented Democratic donors and activists that state politics had national implications. They began funding a bevy of organizations dedicated to winning back statehouses for Democrats — including The States Project, Forward Majority, and Sister District. Along with redoubled fundraising efforts by the party’s own Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, these organizations brought greater parity to partisan spending on state legislative races.
Of course, these groups were all founded before the last presidential election. So their mere existence cannot explain why Democrats, anomalously, made more gains on the state level in last year’s midterms than they did off of Joe Biden’s coattails in 2020. But it takes time for organizations to scale up their resources and refine their tactics, and the Democrats’ largest outside funder of state legislative races, The States Project, increased both the quantity and quality of its activities between 2020 and 2022.
Last year, TSP spent nearly $60 million on state legislative races — an unprecedented sum for a Democratic outside group targeting state capitols and more than the DLCC directly raised. Those deep pockets made TSP the Democratic Party’s top funder in many battleground states. In Michigan, it spent $16 million — eight times more than the next largest donor. In Arizona, it spent 30 times more than any other giver. In Pennsylvania, it spent 80 times more.
That money enabled Democratic legislative candidates in those states to avail themselves of resources traditionally reserved for federal campaigns. Among these was rigorous ad testing. In the past, state legislative candidates rarely could afford to produce multiple campaign ads and screen them for a statistically representative sample of voters to discern which conveyed their message most effectively. In 2022, TSP-backed candidates enjoyed that luxury.
If TSP’s funds improved the quality of Democratic candidates’ ads, they also expanded their reach. Historically, to the extent that state legislative candidates have advertised on television, they’ve typically done so on cable, where rates are more manageable than on broadcast. But broadcast television still reaches a broader audience than cable does and is especially helpful for turning an unknown (and, therefore, generic-seeming) Democratic candidate into a specific political persona. This is helpful for campaigns trying to win over voters who feel no special loyalty to the Democratic Party. Thanks to TSP’s funds, Democratic legislative candidates reached out to voters over network airwaves to an unprecedented degree in 2022.
Finally, the organization gave its candidates a financial incentive to personally knock on doors in their district, asking constituents for their votes. In recent years, political-science research has called the utility of conventional canvassing operations into question. On a dollars-per-vote basis, having disproportionately young, politically engaged, and ideologically committed campaign hands spread the candidate’s message by interrupting people’s dinners just doesn’t compete very well with message-tested television advertisements. There’s a reason Coca-Cola and Pepsi don’t try to sell consumers on their respective products one doorstep at a time.
But according to Aaron Kleinman, director of research for Future Now (parent organization of The States Project), research privately available to Democratic groups has found that few things have greater potential to change a voter’s allegiance than a personal conversation with the actual candidate. It is impractical to dedicate much of a candidate’s time to personally knocking on doors in an election for a statewide office or even for a House district, but state legislative districts are so small that a sufficiently committed candidate can actually win a meaningful number of votes by hitting doorsteps.
Well-funded, data-driven campaign operations were only one ingredient in the recipe for Democrats’ state-level success in 2022. But it’s an element that the party and its supporters can control. Democrats cannot make the Supreme Court nix another constitutional right in 2024 (and shouldn’t do so even if they could). But they can increase their fundraising for state-level races and the efficacy of their campaign investments.
As divided government trims legislative ambitions in Washington, state governments will increasingly determine the availability of reproductive health care, the carbon intensity of energy grids, the relative power of workers and business owners, and myriad other policy outcomes that progressives care about. Yet the costs of influencing the results of a state legislative race — whether measured in dollars or volunteers’ time — remains exponentially lower than those required to move the needle in a Senate or presidential election. If Democratic voters and donors continue waking up to the stakes of state legislative elections, last year’s results suggest they can send the Republican Party a few more wake-up calls in 2024.