Democrats have seized the momentum — now that needs to flow down-ballot

Our analysis shows a narrow path for Democrats to win back state-level power. It's crucial — but it won't be easy

Published August 24, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) greets supporters following a rally on August 12, 2022 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Nate Smallwood/Getty Images)
Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) greets supporters following a rally on August 12, 2022 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Nate Smallwood/Getty Images)

Reports of Democrats' midterm death may be greatly exaggerated. In fact, Democrats have momentum. Public reaction to the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision has demonstrated the deep unpopularity of Republican abortion restrictions, including Kansas voters' recent and resounding rejection of a change to the state constitution that would have made an abortion ban possible. And a summer of explosive Jan. 6 hearings has shown the depths to which MAGA Republicans aim to go in dismantling democracy. Meanwhile, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has been a tremendous victory. FiveThirtyEight now has Democrats ahead on the generic ballot.

Democrats have a path to retain control in Washington. But the fight must be for much more than that. From abortion access to fair elections, state legislatures are increasingly the venues that control ever-broader swaths of our social, economic, and personal lives. Building progressive power in state legislatures is a key to securing the very future of our civil rights and democracy. Remember: whoever we elect to legislatures this year will be in office during the critical post-2024 election period. 

The good news is that control of legislative chambers is not wildly out of reach. Our recent analysis shows that Democrats have been much closer to controlling chambers than has been commonly understood. Follow the data: Legislative majorities often hinge on the outcomes in a handful of competitive seats. With so much on the line, Democrats must use their newfound momentum to fight hard for control of critically important state legislative seats.

In 2020 and 2021, Democrats lost by tiny margins 

In 2020, tiny margins in a small number of races kept Democrats from power in numerous battleground state chambers. If Democratic candidates had gotten just 4,451 more votes in the two closest races in the Arizona state House (0.09% of the total 5,028,382 votes cast), they would have flipped the chamber. That would have broken a Republican trifecta and kept the state from passing a 15-week abortion ban in March. 

Similarly, Democrats would have flipped the North Carolina state House with just 20,671 more votes in the 10 most competitive legislative districts (0.39% of the 5,266,692 votes cast). That would have prevented Republicans from gerrymandering the state and federal redistricting maps, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has no ability to veto.

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Just 8,611 more votes for state legislative Democrats in the four districts with the closest margins in Michigan (out of 5,349,675 total votes), and 22,356 more votes in the 12 closest races in Pennsylvania (out of 6,479,724 total votes), would have flipped both houses in those crucial swing states as well. That would have prevented the Pennsylvania legislature from pursuing voter suppression measures, and unblocked legislative Democrats from enacting gun safety measures following the Oxford shooting.

We saw this again in 2021. After two productive trifecta years, Virginia Democrats lost the governorship and the House of Delegates. But it was an extremely narrow loss: Democrats were just 733 votes shy of holding the three Democratic incumbent seats that decided the majority, out of 3.2 million total votes cast in state legislative races. In those three races, Democrats lost by margins of 94, 127 and 512 votes. 

Changing those outcomes would have required turning out more Democratic voters at the bottom of the ticket. An alternative approach shows we might have needed fewer votes — if we had successfully persuaded a few people to vote for Democratic rather than Republican state legislative candidates. For instance, flipping just 2,226 votes from Republican to Democratic state legislative candidates in the two Arizona house districts with the closest margins would have delivered Democrats control of the chamber. And flipping just 370 votes in the three closest districts in Virginia would have kept Democrats in control of the House of Delegates.

In 2021, after two years of trifecta control in Virginia, Democrats fell just 733 votes shy of holding the three seats that decided the majority in the House of Delegates.

Some combination of persuading more swing voters and mobilizing more base voters could have bridged the relatively narrow gap between 2020's down-ballot losses and flipping state chambers, or retaining the Virginia House in 2021. This observation coincides with what organizers already know: Expanding and engaging the electorate are both important functions. It's a false choice for Democrats to pursue either persuasion or expanding the electorate – we must do both.

Beware ballot "drop-off" — and keep fighting

Of course, this analysis doesn't mean the road ahead is easy. Every vote must be earned, especially for down-ballot Democrats. The votes earned will need to be concentrated in the competitive districts that will decide legislative majorities. And you can't out-organize gerrymandering and voter suppression. 

But what this analysis shows is that the fight for control of our states is not insurmountable. Furthermore, it may well be the case that Democrats already have enough voters showing up, but too many of them simply "drop off" the ballot when it comes to voting for state legislators. In a 2020 analysis looking at 11 battleground chambers, we found that state legislative Republicans outperformed Donald Trump in terms of vote share in every single chamber, while state legislative Democrats almost always underperformed Joe Biden in vote share. This trend was echoed in Virginia's 2021 elections, where we saw down-ballot Democrats underperform their gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, in terms of both number of votes and vote share, while down-ballot Republicans outperformed now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin on both measures. It appears that Democratic top-of-ticket voters are dropping off the ballot in a way that Republican top-of-ticket voters are not.

So this is going to be work. Electorally, Democrats must support inspiring candidates with resonant messages, and ensure those candidates have the resources to run strong campaigns. Structurally, we must recognize that success requires year-round civic engagement. Progressives can't just engage people during election season — we need to build power through organizations that have the resources to focus on advocacy, accountability and community-building, as well as election campaigns. 

And finally, to combat ballot drop-off, Democrats need to make sure that our voters understand the importance of state legislatures, policy and power. Unlike Republicans, Democrats do not have an embedded, emotional connection to state-level power. But we can build one. We can shift the narrative to embrace the value of state power as necessary for a free future, we can celebrate progressive federalism, and we can commit to building and maintaining progressive state power.

By Gaby Goldstein

Gaby Goldstein is an attorney and political strategist who focuses on the growing importance of state legislatures. She is co-founder of Sister District, whose mission is to build progressive power in state legislatures and support progressive state legislators once elected, and co-moderator of the State Power Series, a virtual event series co-sponsored by Vote Save America/Crooked Media and Sister District. Follow her: @gaby__goldstein

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By Mallory Roman

Mallory Roman is a social psychologist and political researcher focused on voter mobilization, volunteerism and electoral outcomes at the state legislative level. She is director of research at Sister District.

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2022 Midterms Analysis Democrats Elections State Legislatures