The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With democracy under attack, Democrats see a firewall in states

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
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For a good long time, Democrats have lamented the challenge of getting donors to focus on state-level races. More glamorous contests — presidential races, hot Senate campaigns against nationally loathed Republicans — often suck up the attention, and the money, of donors at all levels.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been working feverishly for years to focus donors and activists on the importance of state-level races. That’s paid off: Republicans dramatically outnumber Democrats in the state legislatures and governorships the parties control.

But Democrats might have found a new way to raise awareness of state races, particularly gubernatorial contests, to donors. And Republican assaults on democracy are key to it.

Threats to democracy can often appear too abstract to grab donor and activist interest. But since former president Donald Trump tried to steal the 2020 election and a mob violently tried to help him do it, and Republicans responded by doubling down on voter suppression and efforts to capture control over election machinery, there might be a shift underway

The Democratic Governors Association, which oversees Democratic gubernatorial campaigns, is set to announce that it raised more than $23 million in the first quarter this year, a record, people with knowledge of the numbers tell us. Over 30 percent of those that gave were first-time donors.

Several people who raise money for DGA told us GOP attacks on democracy on the state level, and the idea that Democratic governors might represent a firewall against them, has made it easier to haul in funds for Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

DGA donor Sheila Markin Nielsen, a former assistant U.S. attorney who does executive coaching for lawyers, says that among fellow donors, “there’s been an awakening process.”

“Many of us thought that national elections matter most,” Nielsen told us, noting that donors are now realizing that Republicans have been working to capture control in the states “for a really long time.”

“We haven’t focused on that,” Nielsen said. “And we really need to.”

The conception of Democratic governors as a last line of defense for democracy — and the way this is helping to raise money — is playing out in several ways.

One is that Democratic governors in states with GOP-controlled legislatures can veto voter suppression legislation and, in some states, extreme gerrymanders. This has already been happening in places such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those states all have Democratic governors and GOP legislatures. If Democrats do hold those seats in 2022, they’ll continue erecting a bulwark against those legislatures’ efforts to restrict voting rights.

“Governors matter more than ever,” Josh Wachs, a management consultant who fundraises for DGA, told us. He says it was much harder to raise money for gubernatorial races in 2018 than today, because donors are seeing “the power that Republican-controlled legislatures and governors can have" over democracy itself.

Another mounting fear is that in 2024, a Republican governor in a swing state could send a fake slate of electors for a Republican presidential candidate who lost the state’s popular vote. A GOP-controlled House of Representatives could count those sham electors, and they would stand.

As far-fetched as that sounds, you already see Trump’s candidate for governor of Georgia, former senator David Perdue, intimating that he’d be prepared to do just that. Republicans in other swing states are similarly radicalizing along anti-democratic lines. And in every single one of the most important presidential swing states, there’s a governor’s race this year.

This is galvanizing donors as well, according to Jackie Brot Weinberg, a consultant who raises money for DGA. Weinberg says donors who previously didn’t even want to talk about giving to gubernatorial races are now “hyper focused” on scenarios such as that one.

“It’s a genuine concern,” Weinberg told us, noting that this is having “a motivating influence on Democratic donors.”

The story of voting laws isn’t just about suppression. In many states run by Democrats, legislatures have passed recent laws to enhance voting rights and bolster democracy. According to the Brennan Center, in January nearly 400 bills were pending in 32 states to expand voting access.

Where those proposals pass, they will only be signed into law by Democratic governors.

This is part of a broader awakening to the importance of the states. Democrats are making efforts to direct more money to flip one or more key legislative chambers, and candidates for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections, are fundraising at a pace many times higher than in prior years.

None of this will be easy. Republicans have gerrymandered effectively in state legislatures. And 2022 is an off-year election with a Democratic president, making high Republican turnout more likely, and making it very challenging to hold swing-state governorships.

Nevertheless, for there to be any hope of blunting the GOP assault on democracy, key to it will be the widespread realization that contributions to state-level races can help build that firewall. This appears to be underway. Time will tell whether it’s enough.