To Save Roe, Democrats Pour Cash Into Flipping Statehouses

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The results are hilariously small. They round off errors and have far fewer consequences. What is the non-funny bit? The race for state legislative elections is where only a few votes can make all the difference in which candidate wins and which party controls which major levers of the state government.

A group of Democratic strategists is looking to quickly spend millions to find likely Democrats to add to their voter rolls.

It’s decidedly unsexy work and can be grueling, but Democrats have for decades been complacent—and, as a result, 54% of state legislators in this country are Republican, and 62% of the state legislative chambers are under Republican control.

Another way to put it: Democrats are more popular than Republicans in voter rolls but they have concentrated power in the urban centers while denying rural and suburban areas of their control to Republicans. Because they control the rural, sparsely populated parts of states and give the cities over to the Democrats, Gerrymandering keeps Republicans competitive. The result is diluted Democratic power that doesn’t match their objective clout.

Forward Majority, one of the independent groups that sprung up to fill in the gaps laid bare in Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, has already spent some $50 million in the years since on getting Democrats competitive again in state legislative races. The group is now joining another effort to expand their reach into areas less densely populated and reach the most difficult-to-reach potential voters.

“State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for democracy, but that’s just starting to hit people’s radar,” says Vicky Hausman, a co-founder of Forward Majority. “Every single issue that you care about will be decided in state legislatures.”

The frontline priorities for Forward Majority are Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—three states where independent redistricting programs reset the political boundaries. The strategy team estimates that as many as 500k Democratic-minded friends live in these states, but they aren’t on the voter register. The theory is that their participation could mean the difference between Republican control and continued Republican control in these three states’ state legislatures.

Arizona Democrats might have won control back of their legislature by gaining roughly 3,000 votes more in 2020. An additional 8,600 Michiganders might have made the same move, while the Pennsylvania gap was still a manageable 22,000 votes. In other words, even if only 10% of the new registrations on the list of highly targeted districts show up, that’s a pickup of 25 seats and a check on Republicans in major battleground states.

The long-term plans have investments going to Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, where Forward Majority’s data scientists estimate a combined 1.7 million unregistered Democratic voters live in the six competitive states.

Strategists admit that tallies are more economical in cities and have the additional benefit of supporting statewide candidates such as those running for the White House, Senate, or both. However, there is plenty of potential for growth in the rural and suburban districts of state Houses and Senates. And some of the maps for those districts are fairer than they’ve been in a long time, if not favoring Democrats.

This may sound super geeky. But consider what would have happened if then-President Donald Trump had successfully organized a pressure campaign on Republican-controlled state legislatures in Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to ignore the results of the 2020 elections and send alternative electors to Washington for the Electoral College vote. While it may seem absurd, Trump insists that those in power can legally do the same thing. Congress is dragging its heels in putting in place protections against that kind of bananas effort, as TIME’s Eric Cortellessa reports today, and time is running out to do so.

That leaves state lawmakers as perhaps the final safeguard to Trump—or someone like him—hijacking the next presidential vote count.

Then, there’s the recent shock to Democrats that the Supreme Court appears ready to overturn abortion protections embedded in the 1973 Roe V. Wadeexpected to be announced this summer. As a result, states may rush to establish new restrictions or guarantees regarding abortion access if that happens. The Democrats in Congress are unable to agree on a federal abortion law. This puts state legislators in a particularly powerful position.

Roe is a wake-up call for a lot of folks, but sadly for anyone who has been working in the state legislative space, it’s in no way a surprise,” Hausman says.

In the great debates over European war, which has already claimed 1,000,000 lives and threatened a half century of abortion rights, it may appear that only a handful of voters are fighting for their cause. But when so few voters can tip power in Phoenix, Lansing and Harrisburg, it’s hard for partisans on either side to argue against such an investment.

This group of wealthy Democrats seems to be ready to invest heavily to win the votes of their neighbors, who they believe they can trust to vote in favor.

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