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Democrats make big gains in state legislatures after beating expectations

Democrats took control of the Michigan state Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years. They're on track to flip other legislative chambers when all the votes are counted.
Michigan Gubernatorial Candidate Ryan Kelley Joins "Rally The Vote" Event At The State Capitol
The Michigan State Capitol on July 30, 2022 in Lansing.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

National Democrats were fairly happy on Election Day as they dodged a predicted trouncing at the polls, but state Democrats might have even more to celebrate.

As with Congress, the president's party typically faces a shellacking in state legislatures in the cycle after his election and few expected 2022 to be different, as Democrats prepared to lose ground across the country and fought to keep the few majorities they had.

But Democrats had a much better night on the state level than expected. With votes still being counted across the country, the party has flipped the Michigan state Senate away from Republican control, according to The New York Times, citing AP data. And Democrats appear on track to flip the state House in Michigan, as well as in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the nonpartisan organization that represents legislative chambers.

Democrats are also competitive in races to flip the legislative chambers in Arizona and New Hampshire, the NCSL said.

Republicans, meanwhile, consolidated power by creating supermajorities in both Florida legislative chambers as well as the North Carolina Senate, Wisconsin Senate, Iowa Senate and South Carolina House. They have not flipped any chambers as of yet.

Pennsylvania Democrats were already celebrating their wins in the state assembly, anticipating that they'll take control for the first time since 2010. If Democrats do flip the Michigan House as well as the Senate, they'll have full partisan control of the state for the first time in nearly 40 years following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's re-election this week.

Democratic wins this cycle signals a shift in state legislative priorities that could have major ramifications on contentious issues. With a more conservative Supreme Court that is relegating many policy decisions to the state level, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee president Jessica Post noted that these races could decide issues like abortion rights access, environmental protections, gun safety, voting rights and more.

"If you look at presidential midterms that bucked the trend, there's not that many examples," said Post. "There's 2002 because Republicans did really well after 9/11 and then there's some during FDR. We're still waiting to get all the stats, but we're thrilled."

Changes in legislative control could also have an impact on future elections. The Republican-controlled state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Michigan had entertained election denial conspiracies after the 2020 election, for example. It appears state Democrats in Pennsylvania were already gearing up to head off similar challenges that they said threatened democracy, while in Michigan, Democrats were pulling together a long list of policy priorities they haven't addressed in four decades.

“We’ve had an agenda to defend democracy for a long time, and we finally will get ready to enact it as we go into 2023,” Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said, according to Spotlight, a nonprofit news publisher in Pennsylvania.

Democrats faced a drubbing at the state level across the country in 2020. It was particularly dispiriting for the party because it was a redistricting year. The state legislatures that followed, which Republicans won overwhelmingly, used that year's census to create new election maps in states across the country. Many were gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates, giving a boost to the GOP in 2022 House races.

This time around, Democrats maintained majorities in both legislative chambers in Colorado and Maine's House as well as the New Mexico and Minnesota statehouses, according to the Times — all states where Republicans worked to make inroads. They also held onto a supermajority in the Delaware Senate, gained supermajorities in the Vermont House and Senate and prevented Republicans from gaining legislative supermajorities in Wisconsin and North Carolina, protecting the veto of Democratic governors in both states.

While the nonpartisan NCSL said 2022 represented one of the smallest shifts in legislative political power over a two-year cycle in over a century, the group said Democrats undoubtedly have reason to celebrate. That won't change even if Republicans end up holding onto their majorities in Arizona and New Hampshire or taking chambers in Oregon, where votes are still being counted, said Ben Williams, NCSL's program principal of elections and redistricting.

"This is clearly turning out to be a very, very good election for the Democrats, and it could get even better," he said.

The Republican State Leadership Committee said national groups had spent more than $130 million to help Democrats, who similarly noted that the GOP had poured millions into races across the board. "Facing down an onslaught," Andrew Romeo, the communications director for the group, said the GOP had "defied the odds" by holding onto the majority of state legislatures and securing veto-proof supermajorities in six chambers across five states.

He said that the state legislatures would remain key to Republicans' strategies to thwart progressive priorities.

“With minimal gains at the federal level, the Republican power we held and gained last night in the states will be all the more important for stopping Joe Biden’s disastrous agenda," Romeo said in a statement.

Post, who has spent more than a decade working with the DLCC, said the group reworked their strategy after a tough string of losses in 2020. They focused on local issues, helped tailor messaging for specific districts and ensured candidates were out meeting people face-to-face — something they struggled to do in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Despite the gerrymandering that resulted from the 2020 elections, Post said it has still been difficult to focus national attention on local races as Democrats were preoccupied with Senate seats and limiting damage at the House level.

Post said she hopes that this string of wins will bring greater support to these races down the line.

"Success does beget success," she said, noting that many state legislative candidates outperformed those competing at the federal level. "I think as folks see voting laws improve or fewer news stories about abortion rights being taken away in states, hopefully, they see we're right about the importance of these races."