Despite trepidations going back to early fall that abortion was fading as a top issue for voters, Democrats managed to both hold onto existing majorities and flip state legislatures by running on reproductive rights.
They held the line by keeping majorities in both chambers in Colorado and Maine, as well as the New Mexico House, Minnesota House and Washington Senate. They flipped both chambers in Michigan along with the Minnesota Senate, largely meeting the ambitious goals set by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the group charged with fundraising for state legislatures.
“This midterm cycle managed to completely buck historic trends,” DLCC spokeswoman Christina Polizzi told The Daily Beast. “Abortion rights is looking like it mattered across the map, so even in states where Democrats held the majority, we held those chambers despite very heavy spending.”
Polizzi added that all of the chambers they held onto were ones the Democrats lost in the 2010 or 2014 midterms, a coup for the party in an election marked by high inflation and voter dissatisfaction with the economy.
The clearest illustration of abortion cancelling out some of the historical and economic headwinds against Democrats came in Michigan, where voters had a tangible opportunity to make their voice heard through a ballot referendum deciding whether to codify abortion and other reproductive rights.
With the mix of the ballot referendum and a redrawn state Senate map giving Democrats a genuine shot at a majority for the first time since 1984, the party bet big on Michigan and went on air with ads far earlier than previous cycles.
“The money makes a huge difference, especially for those of us down-ballot,” Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow told The Daily Beast, adding that the abortion issue “changed everything.”
The Royal Oak Democrat brought in a $2.35 million fundraising haul on the heels of her viral speech from April—where she took on a Republican colleague for accusing her of trying to “groom and sexualize kindergarteners”—and built a powerful email list of small donors.
McMorrow said the surges in enthusiasm and small donations coming first from her speech, then at a broader scale following both the infamous leak in May and actual Supreme Court decision on abortion in June, allowed the party to get on the air early and beat the Michigan GOP, and itss benafactors like the deep-pocketed Devos family, at their own game.
“This is where, down-ballot, we’ve always been under resourced, when we have gotten money in it’s come really late versus the DeVoses spending here—and they always spend early—and it just really allowed us to get out first with the types of messages that we needed to take into a year where people are just burned out on how negative politics is,” she said.
For lessons to be learned going into the future, Polizzi said this cycle showed how much more bang for their buck small donors and outside organizations can get by donating at the state level, but the results also don’t mean that pocketbook issues were a non-factor in the race.
“It was a both-and election,” Polizzi said, noting that messaging in states like Maine and Colorado focused heavily on direct monetary relief Democratic majorities in the legislature were able to deliver for constituents during the depths of the pandemic.
McMorrow pointed to the state Senate Democrats putting together a much more sophisticated ground operation than in previous cycles, with the extra cash allowing them to pay door knockers and maintain them more effectively than with volunteers, who face an opportunity cost in taking the time to hit the pavement and can be prone to flaking out.
“It’s very different than a congressional operation where you’ve got a large team,” McMorrow said. “Traditionally on state legislature races, you're begging every friend and neighbor and Dem club member to come out and knock the doors for you.”
Although Democrats lost seats in places like New York, where abortion is already codified into state law, and the party may come up short in a potential 200-200 tie in New Hampshire’s sprawling state House chamber, the cherry on top could come in Pennsylvania if they manage to flip the House.
“Part of the key to winning state legislative elections is articulating to voters why they’re important and why they matter,” Polizzi said.
After years of taking a licking from Republicans at the state level and the sting of the party’s failure to pick up any chambers in 2020, this cycle has shown a model for victory in an otherwise difficult climate for Democrats at the national level.
With the pandemic introducing so many variables to the midterm cycle—from lingering grievances over school closures to the knock-on effects of shutting down the global economy—McMorrow found that returning to door-to-door campaigning after such little voter contact in the last election made all the difference.
“There’s nothing that beats the relationship with somebody door-to-door when it’s you, and you’re their state senator or the candidate,” McMorrow said. “Which, when people were starved for human connection after we were all trapped at home living through a pandemic, I can’t tell you how great that was.”