With all eyes on marquee races for Congress and governorships, Democratic and Republican groups have poured millions of dollars into under-the-radar battles for the control of state legislatures.
The stakes this year are unusually high. A Supreme Court decision in June handed the question of abortion to state legislatures for the first time in decades, fallout from the 2020 election has pushed many states to reconsider their voting laws, and fights over whether racial and gender-based material belongs in school are being waged in a growing number of states.
Republicans are fighting to defend vulnerable majorities in Arizona, Michigan, and New Hampshire, as well as the Minnesota Senate. They’re contesting Democratic majorities in Colorado, Maine, Nevada, and Oregon, in addition to the Minnesota House, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s state legislature campaign arm.
Like at the congressional and gubernatorial level, Oregon was not considered at-risk territory for Democratic state legislature groups until late in the midterm season.
A strategy memo written in May by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s state legislature arm, did not list Oregon as a state where the group planned to defend majorities this year.
But the DLCC and a related group poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Oregon House and Senate races last week as the broader outlook for Democrats continued to deteriorate.
Republicans have spent more than $4.4 million on television ads for state legislative races in Oregon this cycle, falling below the more than $5.7 million Democrats have spent on the airwaves.
The Oregon House is presently made up of 37 Democrats and 23 Republicans. The Oregon Senate has 18 Democrats, 11 Republicans, and one independent member.
With the state potentially poised to elect its first Republican governor in 40 years, a GOP majority in Salem could deliver significant changes for Oregon. Christine Drazan, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has said she would push to repeal a ballot measure approved in 2020 that effectively decriminalized the use of hard drugs on the streets.
A Republican-controlled legislature could help her do so.
In Minnesota, both parties are looking to gain unified control of the state legislature after years of divided government.
Democrats hold 69 of the state House’s 134 seats — giving them a narrow four-seat majority that Republicans hope to erase on Election Day.
In the Minnesota Senate, the dynamic is reversed. Republicans are defending their one-seat majority, holding 34 seats to Democrats’ 31 and independents’ two.
Democrats have reportedly outspent Republicans significantly in the battle to claim both chambers.
Parental rights in education and cracking down on crime have both factored into key races that will decide who will control each chamber of the Minnesota legislature.
In addition to Oregon and the Minnesota House, Democrats are focused on retaining their legislative majorities in Colorado, Maine, Nevada, and Washington, as well as the New Mexico House, according to the DLCC.
They’re working to contest more vulnerable GOP majorities in New Hampshire and Michigan.
“This cycle, our top priority is to defend our Democratic majorities while mounting competitive challenges in GOP-held chambers,” Gabrielle Chew, spokeswoman for the DLCC, told the Washington Examiner in a statement. “We know we’re up against historic midterm headwinds, and we’re focused on honing in on the most strategic ways to protect our progress and build a path to future Democratic majorities.”
Other Democratic groups are dumping significant amounts of money into state legislative contests, reflecting a growing recognition within both parties of the importance of controlling state chambers.
The States Project, a Democratic political action committee, invested $60 million into legislative fights in just five states this cycle. Forward Majority, another Democratic PAC, poured more than $20 million into legislative races.
Republicans can break out of a modest electoral slump this year by holding on to all the chambers they currently control. Because Republicans flipped the Virginia House of Delegates red in 2021, they could emerge from the cycle with a net gain if they don’t lose any state Houses or Senates already under their control.
“We’ve said from the start that our No. 1 priority this year is defending our razor-thin majorities in states like Arizona, Michigan, and New Hampshire, as doing so will make this the first two-year cycle since 2013-2014 Republicans net-legislative chambers,” RSLC spokesman Andrew Romeo told the Washington Examiner. “That hasn’t changed as we come down the stretch, but we also continue to press the attack in Democrat strongholds to put us in position to capitalize in case everything breaks our way on election night.”