The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats surged to flip state legislatures, defying past GOP gains

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist raise their hands together at the end of Whitmer's celebratory speech during an election night watch party Nov. 8 in Detroit. (Nick Hagen/For The Washington Post)

After years of watching Republicans dominate in down-ballot races, Democrats turned the tables to their own advantage in the midterm elections, flipping some legislative chambers from GOP control and blocking efforts to create veto-proof majorities in others.

In Pennsylvania, where votes continued to be counted, Democrats are on the precipice of taking control of the state House for the first time since 2008. Democrats also won Michigan’s House and Senate, as well as the Minnesota Senate. The reelection victories for Govs. Gretchen Whitmer (Mich.) and Tim Walz (Minn.) give Democrats total control over those two states — for the first time in Michigan since after the 1982 election.

On Nov. 9, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) gave remarks after being reelected as governor. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Nick Hagen/The Washington Post)

If the early results hold up in states where some races remain undetermined, Democrats will not have lost control of a single legislature that they previously held, a feat not accomplished by the president’s party during a midterm election since 1934.

The victories blunted Republican plans to push further restrictions on abortion, transgender rights, school curriculums and spending, and in some states expanded Democrats’ possibilities of passing their own priorities.

Among the newly elected in districts that were key to the Democratic surge in Pennsylvania’s House was Tim Brennan, who prevailed by 5,000 votes against a Republican opponent who had worked for state legislators who opposed abortion rights and supported voting restrictions.

Brennan, 45, who lives in Bucks County, a Philadelphia suburb, had run unsuccessfully in 2018 and lost in the primary by 55 votes. After the 2020 election, he served as an attorney for a local county where Donald Trump challenged the results. He credited his win Tuesday to the 10,000 doors he personally knocked, out of 40,000 by his campaign, and voters splitting their tickets because of an aversion to extremist Republican candidates, especially GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano.

“People told me they want functional government. They were upset with the top of the ticket in Republican races. They were upset with election denials and the loss of choice,” Brennan said, attributing Democratic success to “talking about functional government and not going down these rabbit holes.”

Brennan was excited by the prospect of a Democratic House with the leverage to press Senate Republicans to moderate on abortion, education and other issues.

“Being there and having your voice heard is one thing, but being part of the majority and having a chance to make policy is something I’m really looking forward to,” he said.

With some states still counting, Republicans control both chambers of 26 state legislatures, down from 30 before the election. Democrats fully control 19, up from 17 before Tuesday.

“A couple of legislative races won by a few votes means the difference between some of the most draconian abortion laws passing, restrictions on elections, stopping a gutting of a state’s ability to protect people from polluters,” said Daniel Squadron, a former state senator from New York and founder of the super PAC the States Project, which helped finance some of the races.

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Democrats will keep Senate majority after winning eight out of the nine seats rated competitive by Cook Political Report. The only remaining race will be decided in Georgia in a Dec. 6 runoff — here’s how it will work.
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The Democratic victories appeared to have been fueled by a wave of liberal outrage at the Supreme Court ruling that returned the power to determine abortion rights to state capitals and the Trump-led effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

At polling places across the nation Tuesday, voters expressed frustration at the soaring cost of living but also indicated their biggest fear was government extremism in the right.

For Matt Kroski, 43, who dislikes both major parties, Tuesday was about voting against candidates more than anything else — and these days, he said outside a Phoenix polling station, Republicans scare him the most.

“I’m looking for people who are more in tune with the public, and more in tune with what’s right for people, rather than what’s right for their pocketbooks,” he said.

In Grand Rapids, Cody Canfield, 30, a self-described independent who leans Democratic, said his vote was driven largely by his support of the successful referendum to enshrine reproductive rights in Michigan’s constitution.

“I have a girlfriend who I’m going to marry, and I don’t need her life in danger just because somebody says so,” he said. “It scares her to have that right taken away from her.”

The party’s unexpected legislative successes came after a new, laserlike focus on state races by both longtime operatives at places like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which rarely receives much help from the national party, and other relative newcomers to this lower-profile battlefield.

Democrats have complained for years that while Republicans targeted state legislative races with huge financial investments, their own party and its donors focused instead on higher-profile contests featuring splashier candidates, even ones doomed to near-certain odds of defeat. Last year’s redistricting, in which Republican-controlled legislatures were able to carve maps to their own benefit, brought a fresh reminder of the stakes of ignoring those races.

“State legislatures are seen by national Democrats as the minor leagues,” Squadron said. The midterm elections “proved they’re a game of their own and one that you have to focus on.”

Squadron’s group spent about $60 million on state legislative races, particularly in Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, in the belief that those legislatures were most at risk of having GOP lawmakers overturn a presidential race in favor of Trump or another Republican. Another Democratic PAC, Forward Majority, kicked in $20 million. The DLCC spent $50 million and its Republican counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent $30 million.

“Republicans had everything in their favor: record fundraising and a midterm political environment under a Democratic president, and they have little to show for it,” said DLCC President Jessica Post. Democrats, she said, “gained critical ground for the decade ahead.”

This combined budget is a pittance compared with how Democratic donors focus on long-shot races for Senate — Democrats running in Iowa, Maine and South Carolina two years ago raised more than $250 million combined for their Senate bids, with all three losing by wide margins.

Republicans did have some reason for celebration this week. In Kansas, they retained veto-proof supermajorities in the legislature, allowing them to impose their will even after incumbent Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection victory Tuesday.

In Ohio, not only did Gov. Mike DeWine (R) win another term in a landslide, but the GOP-controlled legislature maintained supermajorities in both houses and can chart a deeply conservative course in the next few years. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott won reelection to a third term as fellow Republicans widened their majorities in the legislature. The party also made gains in Iowa and South Carolina.

And in Florida, as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won a second term in a rout, Republicans claimed supermajorities in both legislative bodies, the largest in a decade.

“The days of Florida being a swing state are over,” said Dee Duncan, president of the Republican legislative campaign group.

But Republicans’ hopes for trifecta victories — governor and both chambers — in several other states were dashed. Their bids to win supermajorities in North Carolina and Wisconsin’s legislatures, so they could overrule Democratic governors in those states, fell short.

In Nevada, where votes were still being counted, experts say Democrats can hold on to their legislative majorities despite the loss by Gov. Steve Sisolak (D). And although Vermont reelected its Republican governor, a coalition of Democrats and members of the state Progressive Party in the legislature maintained its supermajority. Races in Arizona, for governor and the legislature, remain too close to call.

Some of the Democratic victories came after redistricting battles that ended with more favorable lines than the gerrymandered districts of the prior decade, through either the force of Democratic governors having a say or successful legal challenges to GOP-drawn maps.

“A fair map is everything,” said Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Hortman said Democrats outside of Minnesota’s blue cities also received targeted help from those in safer districts. Somali American state Rep. Mohamud Noor of St. Paul contacted Somali voters in St. Cloud and connected them with volunteers and fundraisers on behalf of state Rep. Dan Wolgamott. He ultimately won reelection by 540 votes.

“What he did to help us surmount that language barrier was what helped us win,” Hortman said. “That’s how we’ll have to govern. We’ll have a large diversity of opinions. We are a big-tent party.”

In Michigan, the Democratic takeover benefited from the coattails of Whitmer’s reelection rout, the big margin given to referendums that placed reproductive rights into the state constitution, and district lines drawn by a nonpartisan commission.

The GOP candidates Democrats were running against also embraced some extreme positions, such as denying the results of the 2020 presidential election, that prompted many voters to overcome their concerns about the economy under President Biden.

“It just really leaned into the culture wars, and voters are tired of that,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D) said. McMorrow drew national attention last spring with a viral speech condemning Republicans’ “hollow, hateful scheme” against LGBTQ rights after a colleague accused her of “grooming” children.

“Inflation and gas prices is something that changes, but losing a fundamental right never goes away.”

McMorrow, 36, noted that this is the first time Democrats took full control of the levers of power in Lansing in her lifetime.

For more than 20 years, Pennsylvania Democrats have dominated in the biggest races, winning five of the six contests for governor, all in blowouts. The Democratic nominee has won seven of the last eight presidential races there.

Yet Democrats have been largely powerless in Harrisburg, as Republicans have had full control of the legislature for 24 of the last 28 years. A very narrow Democratic state House majority got wiped out in 2010.

This year, state Democrats in Harrisburg were able to persuade voters of the impact of the legislative elections by pointing to a GOP effort to place a wide-ranging package of state constitutional amendments on the ballot next year to restrict abortion, climate protections and voting rights — including raising the voting age to 21 if federal law allowed.

Republicans there had used their majorities in both chambers to pass the package. By law, a Democratic governor couldn’t veto the amendments.

The package would have gone up for a second vote early next year and, had it passed, been on the ballot next spring. Now House Democrats plan to block it.

“This is why flipping a chamber is so important and historical,” said Rep. Leanne Krueger, who chairs the state House Democratic campaign committee.

Even given the new makeup in Harrisburg, it’s unclear how much Democrats will be able to roll back Republican initiatives, since conservatives still control the state Senate. For people like Squadron, however, being able to block some GOP efforts is itself a big win.

And the stakes escalated with the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case this term that some conservative legal scholars argue could lead to legislatures, not the popular vote, determining which candidate wins a state’s presidential electoral votes.

When the States Project staff got to work for this campaign, Squadron said, it targeted 73 specific races in key presidential swing states, aiming to flip enough legislatures to thwart any effort to overturn the 2024 presidential election.

He cast their effort as a long-overdue response to conservatives like the billionaire Koch family, whose political network has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into shaping state campaigns and policies.

“They got it,” Squadron told reporters during a Thursday briefing, referring to the Kochs.

McMorrow, the Michigan state senator, listed as key priorities for the state’s newly Democratic legislature funding for schools, protecting the Great Lakes and shoring up voting rights protections.

In a valedictory news conference Wednesday, Walz and other top Minnesota Democrats talked about a cautious agenda — given that they hold a mere one-seat edge in the Senate — but they also plan to move forward on codifying abortion rights, legalizing marijuana and expanding paid family leave.

That was music to Squadron’s ears, having spent just $3 million in Minnesota and $16 million in Michigan.

“The return on investment is unbelievable,” he said.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston and Kane from Washington.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.

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