Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, center, is shown at the state Capitol before the State of the State address, on Jan. 29, 2020, in Lansing, Mich. Credit - Al Goldis—AP
Mallory McMorrow had her 15 minutes of fame. It came back in April, after one of her Republican colleagues called the Democratic state senator a “groomer” in a fundraising email, and McMorrow responded with a forceful speech on the floor of the Michigan Senate.
“I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme,” she said, referring to the conservative push to keep conversations about race and sexuality out of schools. “Because you cannot claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say ‘no.'”
The speech went viral, and McMorrow, 36, was suddenly everywhere. Liberals saw a young woman who had figured out how to fight back against right-wing culture war attacks without taking the bait or accepting the argument on their terms. McMorrow, who had been an anonymous state senator for just three years, made the rounds on MSNBC and CNN and was interviewed in The New York Times and New York Magazine. The New Yorker‘s David Remnick called her a “role model for the midterms,” and Jimmy Kimmel did a segment on her. It was the biggest media circuit for an unknown local politician since the emergence of Pete Buttigieg.
The fame faded, as it generally does. McMorrow now thinks of her career in terms of “before the speech” and “after the speech.” And after the speech, she has worked to channel that jolt of national attention into a fundraising push. McMorrow has raised more than $2 million to help Democrats flip the Michigan senate. She argues there’s no bigger task her party can take on than to build real power at the state level.
“One of the most flattering and disappointing reactions is people asking me when I’m running for higher office,” says McMorrow. “I have value because I am a state senator, not because I have the potential to be something else.”
McMorrow has become the most visible face of a broader Democratic effort to pour money and resources into the state legislative races that the party has long neglected. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is raising money at its fastest pace ever, with a record $45 million so far this cycle, up from $30 million in 2018. (At the time McMorrow sent out an email for the DLCC at the height of her viral moment, it was the organization’s highest-performing solicitation of the cycle.) The States Project, a group co-founded by Democratic donor Adam Pritzker, has announced a $60 million investment in holding and flipping state legislatures.
This is a game that Republicans have been playing since the 1970s, culminating in a 2010 wipeout that flipped 20 chambers around the country to GOP control and gave the party the power to redraw state maps. Since then, Republicans have built strongholds in state legislatures that have allowed them to pass dozens of conservative laws in the states governing issues like gun rights, voting rights, and abortion.
Many Democrats believe the party has made the mistake of dismissing state legislatures as a kind of political minor league. “As progressives, it’s the federal government that came in to integrate public schools, it took federal government action to nationalize marriage equality,” says Jessica Post, President of the DLCC. “Some people think that state legislatures are simply designed to pipeline talent into Congress. But really, Congress has been in incredible gridlock, and states are passing hundreds of pieces of legislation while D.C. is frozen.”
Democrats began to recognize this in recent years. But now, they say, the importance state legislatures has never been clearer. The Dobbs ruling striking down Roe v. Wade gave state legislatures the power to severely restrict abortion rights. And the Supreme Court has also agreed to hear Moore v. Harper, a gerrymandering case out of North Carolina that could test the “Independent State Legislature Theory,” a controversial conservative interpretation of the Constitution that argues state legislatures alone have power over federal elections in their domain. Depending on how the court rules, it could potentially give state legislatures vast powers over the administration of federal elections—a prospect that worries many who recall the effort to subvert the will of the voters in certain states after the 2020 presidential race.
“The reason we’re doing this is to build enough governing power to prevent right-wing lawmakers from stealing the presidency in 2024 and future elections,” says Pritzker of the States Project. “On our side, the focus and interest has been more on what’s happening in D.C. than what’s happening in state capitals. There’s been a dramatic underinvestment in states for years.”
Even as the political climate for them improves slightly, Democrats say it won’t be easy to flip the three seats they would need to gain control of the Michigan senate. In the meantime, McMorrow, who was elected with the wave of Democratic women who first won office in 2018, is bulking up her political infrastructure. She’s raising money through her candidate committee, her two political-action committees (Hate Won’t Win and A More Perfect Michigan), and partnerships with the Michigan Democratic Party and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. She’s also hired several former advisers to Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential bid, including communications maven Lis Smith and fundraising strategist Anthony Mercurio.
It’s no surprise observers are wondering whether she might be positioning herself for something bigger. But while she’s flattered by the comparison to Buttigieg, McMorrow says she’s focused on helping Democrats build structural power on the state level.
“It won’t matter what kind of victories Democrats have at the top of the ballot,” she says, “if we don’t have state legislatures and support at the bottom of the ballot.”