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Post-Roe, some Democrats fear state legislative races still overlooked

These Democrats argue that some longstanding challenges to compete for attention have persisted in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling

An abortion rights demonstrator in Detroit bows their head as people protest the Supreme Court's decision to remove a federal right to an abortion on June 24. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

As Democrat Veronica Klinefelt goes door to door in the suburban Michigan community she’s hoping to represent in the state Senate, she says she repeatedly has to make the case that the outcome of her race matters in a larger fight for abortion rights.

“It’s almost as if people think there’s nothing that can be done and the Supreme Court has made its decision and that’s it,” said Klinefelt, who is vying for a seat in the Detroit area. “They just don’t seem to be able to understand that these decisions translate into more power at the state level.”

Three weeks after the court’s decision to erase a constitutional right to abortion, Democratic candidates and strategists in legislative contests across the country are trying to tap into outrage over the decision and their newfound power to influence abortion laws to generate more enthusiasm for their campaigns. But some are finding that long-standing challenges to compete for attention have persisted in the wake of the ruling.

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For years, Republicans have cemented an advantage in state legislative races, strategists in both parties acknowledge, enabling them to push through conservative legislation on abortion and other matters even at moments like the present one, when Democrats control Congress and the White House. Democrats hoping to inject new urgency into these contests are demanding more money and attention from party leadership — with no clear indication they will get what they want.

Instead, Democratic messaging has largely focused on federal races and a debate over the Senate filibuster, some frustrated Democrats noted, even as individual states now have sole discretion over abortion laws. Some of these Democrats are voicing dissatisfaction with party leaders for not elevating local races more aggressively and not directing more financial resources to the contests.

“You’re not going to ultimately succeed if all you do is say, ‘Go elect another U.S. Senator,’ ” said David Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chair and author of “Laboratories of Autocracy,” a book on GOP power in state legislatures. “The front lines of the attacks on democracy and core rights are state houses. We need to act accordingly or we’re permanently on defense. And when you’re permanently on defense, you ultimately lose.”

In Michigan, Klinefelt says she detects an inclination toward giving money to congressional candidates as she dials for dollars, saying she frequently talks to donors who are used to giving in federal races and don’t see a benefit to spending in local ones. “It hasn’t occurred to them that the investment in the state level will have a bigger impact on their lives,” she said.

Her state is one that activists on both sides of the abortion debate are targeting closely in the wake of the court decision. Abortion rights activists are also eying legislative chamber takeovers in Minnesota and New Hampshire this November. And they’re trying to protect Democratic majorities in Colorado and Maine and prevent an antiabortion supermajority in North Carolina.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is running for reelection as a staunch opponent of reinstating a 1931 abortion ban in her state. The GOP-led legislature is pushing for the ban, which has been blocked by the courts, to be enforced. Some activists are also pushing for a ballot initiative to establish abortion rights in state law.

While the GOP controls the state House and Senate in Michigan, Democrats have made gains in recent years and a nonpartisan redistricting commission offered the party what leaders see as a favorable map. Democrats need a net gain of just three state Senate seats to create a tie in the upper chamber.

“We’re an afterthought and we shouldn’t be,” said Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat. “We should be in front of the table. If it’s a buffet, I want to be at the front. I don’t want to be at the end when there are only scraps.”

Democrats pushing for more representation in state legislatures say that Republicans have long outorganized them. Of the country’s 99 state legislative chambers, Republicans control 62 while Democrats dominate 37. The GOP holds full control of 30 state legislatures while Democrats hold full majorities in just 17.

Nonpartisan observers hold a dim view for Democratic chances of narrowing the gap significantly this fall. Just four chambers are rated as “toss-ups,” by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. And three of those are held by Democrats. Now, Democrats eying these races are pointing to their capacity for concrete actions on abortion, relative to Congress.

“As soon as we take a state legislature, we will do something to protect abortion in the state,” said Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or DLCC, the main organization trying to elect Democrats in state legislatures. “In fact, the only Democratic trifecta of government that hasn’t protected abortion is the federal government.”

While Democratic leaders in Washington including President Biden are now pushing to codify abortion rights in Congress, the party does not have the votes to do so, due to resistance from some centrists in their ranks to changing Senate rules to overcome GOP opposition.

Some Democrats familiar with state races said they fear state legislative campaign efforts are not getting enough money from the Democratic National Committee, which transferred $15 million to the party’s main federal Senate and House committees earlier this year and hasn’t made a similar payment to the DLCC.

One person familiar with the funding decision noted that the DLCC is permitted to raise an unlimited amount of money while the federal House and Senate committees are not. DNC aides say that they’ve significantly bumped up their direct financial commitments in states, albeit via different avenues, including giving money to state parties.

These individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity to more openly discuss strategy.

In some respects, Democrats eying state legislative races have experienced recent success. From April to June, the DLCC raised $6.75 million — a second quarter record for the organization.

In the same period, the Republican State Leadership Committee, the GOP counterpart to the Democratic group, raised $9.8 million.

Democratic Senate candidates, even in states where they are seen as underdogs, raised far more than the DLCC. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat taking on Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in Florida, reported raising more than $12 million in the second quarter. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat running for an open Senate seat in Ohio, brought in more than $9 million.

Multiple strategists see a longer-term pattern, pointing to Democrat Amy McGrath’s failed bid in Kentucky last cycle to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican — a race in which she raised massive sums of money but ultimately did not come close to winning.

In the weeks following the Supreme Court decision, the DLCC has had conversations with the White House about how to elevate key races, according to a person familiar with the talks. A White House adviser said that Biden plans to ramp up his domestic travel, which aides anticipate to include more focus on midterm campaigns across the ballot. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations and deliberations.

The DLCC has also been persistently outraised by its GOP counterpart, though in recent years that gap has closed. The DLCC raised about $32 million in the 2018 campaign cycle, according to the most recent data available via the Center for Responsive Politics, or CRP. The RSLC raised nearly $50 million in 2018, according to CRP.

Republicans say that relatively new Democratic organizations, along with a constellation of various gun control groups and pro-abortion rights groups, more than make up the gap in funding between the two parties. And they note that the RSLC has a broader portfolio than the DLCC, including backing other statewide candidates like GOP secretary of state contenders.

Republican State Leadership Committee spokesman Andrew Romeo accused Democrats of “sending out a smoke signal to their liberal billionaire donors to bail them out of political peril in state races.”

Some Democrats said they are plagued by a problem of their own making: Prominent figures in the party who go on cable news shows and other platforms to urge voters to direct their outrage on abortion to the battle for Congress.

“There are folks who have a big megaphone who, I think, haven’t really gotten the message yet,” said Lala Wu, the co-founder and executive director of Sister District, which works to elect Democrats in state races. “Democrats are very tardy to the party.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.