Concerned about the future of the country and determined to wrest political power from the far right, a group of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area have been gathering once a month to talk politics over brunches, happy hours and Zoom meetings.
Their focus is some 2,300 miles away, in Lansing, Mich., where these Californians are attempting to flip a red state legislature blue. At one time it might have been unseemly or just strange for activists to try to influence local elections far from home. But that's changed. The loss of abortion rights nationally and former President Trump's attempts to undermine election results in key states have made it clear that control of state legislatures really matters.
On this particular day several weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, the friends were getting a pep talk designed to help Democrats understand something that Republicans clued into long ago.
“If you care about Congress, you should care about state legislatures, because state legislatures draw the district lines that decide who goes to Congress,” Melissa Walker, who works to elect Democrats to state legislatures as a director of the States Project, said on a Zoom call with the Bay Area group.
“If you care about the Supreme Court, you should care about state legislatures. Because the Supreme Court doesn’t write laws, they rule on laws, many of which are coming out of state legislatures. It was a Mississippi law that took down Roe .… It was written by state legislators. And that is true all over the country.”
Heads nodded across the Zoom windows as Walker’s message sank in.
The tug of war over the balance of power in Washington soaks up lots of media attention and donor dollars. But issues that touch people’s lives most closely are largely decided in state capitols. Is your minimum wage more than $7.25 an hour? Can you get Medicaid health insurance through the Affordable Care Act? Can you get an abortion? The answers depend on which state you live in and who holds power in the statehouse.
But in state capitols across the nation, Democrats have a lot of catching up to do. The GOP controls 62% of the legislative chambers in statehouses — even though only 47% of voters nationwide consider themselves Republicans.
Republicans have been clobbering Democrats for the last decade when it comes to fundraising for state legislative campaigns. In 2010, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect GOP state lawmakers, raised nearly $30 million, while its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised less than $10 million, according to an analysis by the Center for Political Accountability. In 2020, the gap was smaller but the Democratic group still lagged behind, raising almost $45 million to the Republican group’s $60 million.
Now, a small but growing movement on the left is attempting to get Democrats to pay attention to some of the most under-the-radar political contests in America — races that determine which party controls power in statehouses.
Democratic strategists and party officials are talking to major donors about the need to direct more money to state-level races. A Democratic super PAC is focused on flipping state legislatures in Arizona, Michigan and Minnesota. Groups like the States Project and Sister District are organizing grass-roots campaigns to recruit volunteers and raise small-dollar donations. That means convincing people like the group of friends in the Bay Area that they should care about who’s making state laws in Phoenix, Lansing and St. Paul.
“Previously, I didn’t realize that, being in California, I should be active in other states’ politics,” said Ellen Blinderman, a Bay Area community college instructor who helped organize her friends to try to put Democrats in control of the Michigan Legislature.
“But we are one country, and what happens in those states affects our whole country.”
By forming a "giving circle" with the States Project, Blinderman and her friends are now part of a strategic effort to flip two seats in the Michigan House and three seats in its state Senate. First, they set a goal to raise $8,000. Over monthly potlucks, they invited friends and neighbors to learn about why they're helping Michigan Democrats and asked them to donate to the effort. Once the goal was met, they upped it to $10,000 — and are now 91% of the way there, mostly, Blinderman said, from donations of less than $200.
The money helps fund advertising and professional campaign workers who help candidates connect with voters that might otherwise not show up for a low-turnout legislative race. It's targeted to help Democrats in races the States Project identified as critical to winning a majority. Legislative races are generally not very expensive — in some cases, Walker said, it costs less to flip an entire legislative chamber than it does to flip one congressional seat.
For evidence of how much decisions by a state legislature can ripple across state lines, just look at what's happened since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states quickly passed laws banning abortion. Democratic-controlled California, meanwhile, set about preparing for an influx of visitors seeking reproductive care.
California lawmakers passed 15 bills to expand abortion access and devoted $200 million to abortion services, some of which will provide funds to patients traveling here from other states.
“Need an abortion?” say billboards Gov. Gavin Newsom paid for in South Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.
“California is ready to help.”
Walker, of the States Project, told me her group received a surge of inquiries after the Supreme Court's draft opinion leaked. In 2020, the group had 100 giving circles of friends working to raise money for Democrats to win targeted statehouses. It now has 200, including one named “In response to Roe” and another called “Down with Dobbs.”
Fallout from Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election is another reason Democrats are tuning in to the power of statehouses. After he lost reelection, Trump pressured Republican-held legislatures in states that Joe Biden won to overturn election results. They didn’t do it — but now some of those GOP legislators are getting thrown out of office by Trump-supporting voters. The lie that the election was stolen has taken hold as a fact in some Republican-controlled legislatures. And the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could give legislatures immense new power in deciding presidential elections.
Even though state-focused activism on the left is increasing, it’s still not nearly as robust as it needs to be, says David Pepper, a former leader of the Ohio Democratic Party who wrote a book about GOP dominance of state capitols called “Laboratories of Autocracy.”
Engaging blue-state residents in trying to flip red-state legislatures is “a really smart strategy,” he told me.
“My main quibble is, it needs to be not just a side effort by a really smart group, but this has to be a core mission approach by everyone who cares about democracy — quickly. Because it's that important to really fighting back where the fight really is.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.