Threats to American democracy have never been greater. GOP trifecta states gerrymander the maps in their favor and restrict voting rights. And even as Donald Trump’s treason is laid bare by the January 6 Committee, the prospect of a second Trump term looms. But no threat is more far-reaching — or more obviously designed to place him back in the Oval Office — than the validation of the Independent State Legislature Theory (ISLT).
The Supreme Court just announced it will hear Moore v. Harper this fall, a case that could endorse the ISLT, paving the way for unchecked state legislative power over federal elections – and a dagger to the heart of American democracy. This once fringe legal theory would remove any gubernatorial or court oversight of elections, and shift authority to predominantly GOP-controlled state legislatures The ISLT has already been endorsed by four of the Supreme Court justices, and could be used to overturn the popular vote and award Electoral College votes by legislative decree.
As the Court veers dramatically to the right, as Donald Trump waits in the wings, as our rights are under attack one by one – the latest being the constitutional right to bodily autonomy – we must stay relentlessly focused on protecting our elections. The only way to prevent the unimaginable threats of the ISLT is to win power in at least one chamber in battleground states that are the key to 270+ Electoral College votes. Short of chamber-flips, keeping margins as tight as possible is also a critical threshold to ensure we only need a handful of Republican legislators to do the right thing and prevent election subversion in 2024.
As The New York Times reported, 44% of sitting GOP state legislators in closely contested battleground states have used the power of their office to discredit or attempt to decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election. This November, Democrats must try to hold onto every single seat to hold the line and fight back against the worst possible outcomes. And, with uncertainty – and potential bright spots in the midterm election environment – Democrats should be aggressively competing for control of state legislatures in states with newly competitive maps, where there is a path to a majority.
25 Legislative Seats Could Determine the 2024 Election
Republicans have total control of state legislatures in states totaling 307 Electoral College votes, including every single major battleground state. Of these, Democrats’ closest path to power is in three chambers drawn by commissions last year: Michigan (15 EC votes), Pennsylvania (19), and Arizona (11). This would bring legislatures with total GOP control down to 262 Electoral votes, and give Democrats, or those with mixed chambers, control over states with 276 votes.
FIGURE 1: ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTES BY STATE
This is not easy work, but it is essential: winning races for Secretary of State, state supreme court, or even governor will be insufficient to hold back the worst threats of election subversion through the ISLT. But there is a clear path to a Democratic majority in the Michigan House and Senate, the Pennsylvania House, and the Arizona House and Senate. Across these chambers, a small sliver of just ~25 seats is the lynchpin of power. These chambers are all eminently flippable in a strong year, so the big question is how the environment might evolve in the coming months – and whether Democrats have the resources to shape it.
The most recent polling, including a Times/Siena poll, shows a competitive race at this stage. Since the overturning of Roe, most polls have indicated a tight race on the generic congressional ballot, with Democrats up by 1 point. Polling experts estimate the race has shifted about 3 points in Democrats’ direction, compared with surveys by the same pollsters before the court’s ruling. Given the margin of error in recent polling and the fast changing environment, there may well be real opportunities in the fall.
With an uncertain outlook – and SCOTUS waiting to put extremist GOP state legislatures in charge – Democrats must do everything possible to win in these chambers.
The potential for a red wave in November makes threats of election subversion that much more possible – and the entire ball game will come down to this small set of districts. Below we outline the investments Forward Majority is making this year as part of our long term strategy, the Blueprint for Power, to build and accelerate Democratic power in state legislatures over the coming decade. This is our view of the battleground as we head into the fall, some glimmers of opportunity and our programs built to keep Democrats on a majority path in key battleground states.
ARIZONA STATE HOUSE & SENATE:
- New Maps: The 2022 maps are equally competitive than those faced in 2020, when Democrats came within 3,000 votes of breaking the Republican trifecta through the State House. Democrats came within one seat of tying both the Senate and the House, the latter a chamber that has been in GOP hands for more than 50 years. New maps have drawn many incumbents out of their existing districts, which adds volatility to the already quirky dynamic of each State House district electing two at-large representatives.
- Path to Victory Across 4 Legislative Districts: In Arizona, the State House and Senate districts precisely overlap, providing a high degree of efficiency to target both chambers. In a 30 seat Senate chamber, Democrats have 12 seats in districts where Biden won by 10% or more. Assuming they can hold all of those seats even in a bad year, the heart of the battleground to win the additional 4 seats needed for a majority (3 to tie the chamber) is in the metro Phoenix area. There are two districts (LD-9 and LD-13) that are strong battleground districts, along with LD-4 and LD-2, which are priority targets for this year.
- Key Races:
- LD9: This is a newly open seat in a Biden +6 district. We have an excellent shot at picking up both House seats and the Senate seat.
- LD2 and LD13: Democratic House incumbents Jennifer Pawlick and Judy Schweibert are running for reelection here. Both have proven effective legislators who can win in tougher districts.
- LD4: The only incumbent v. incumbent matchup on the board but we believe Democrat Christine Marsh has an excellent shot against extreme far-right candidate Nancy Barto, who has been a leading voice on a total abortion ban.
- Polling: Our battleground polling shows opportunity here even in a tough environment. Persuadable voters respond very strongly to Republican efforts to ban abortion, roll back protections on birth control and ban books from schools and libraries.
MICHIGAN STATE HOUSE & SENATE:
- New Maps: The Michigan Senate maps are one of the best redistricting outcomes for Democrats in the state legislative battleground. Michigan’s nonpartisan redistricting commission has delivered newly competitive maps; in the 38-seat State Senate chamber, Biden carried 20 seats in 2020, while Trump only carried 18.
- Path to Victory Across 5 Senate Districts: As an illustration, in the Senate, Democrats need 19 of 38 seats to tie, and 20 to win. In that context, there are 16 strong Dem districts (Biden 10%+) that are treated as a floor; there are 5 other districts that Biden won – Democrats need to win 4 of those for the majority or 3 for the tie, and can hopefully expand the delegation and have real potential to flip, even in a tough electoral environment.
- Key Races:
- A nice silver lining of the new Senate maps is that we will not be required to do any incumbent protection in these new maps and three of the five targets are open seats.
- SD4: State Rep. Darrin Camilleri has already locked up the Democratic nomination while Republicans fight it out to see who is furthest to the right. We have a great shot at a pickup here.
- HD22: Democrats have incumbent State Rep. Matt Koleszar running for re-election in this Biden +4 district. While this will be a competitive district, we feel great about the matchup here where Republicans have nominated an extreme candidate with a record of multiple DUIs.
- HD84: Democrat Carol Glanville won a special election earlier this year in a deep red district. She is now running for a full term in this newly drawn and more Democratic seat. Republicans seem poised to nominate their flawed candidate from the special election.
- Polling: We are consistently seeing that Gretchen Whitmer is outperforming Biden’s approval and that is translating to her being the favorite in many toss-up districts. While she likely won’t hit her 2018 margin we think there will be coattails this year.
- We believe that while an outright majority is ideal if we can win three seats beyond the base 16, that likely means Governor Whitmer has won re-election, along with her LG who will break the tie for Senate control.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE HOUSE:
- New Maps: The Pennsylvania Redistricting Commission completed redistricting for the next ten years. The State House maps are newly competitive and slightly lean toward Democrats with Biden winning a majority of districts in 2020.
- Path to Victory Across 15 House Districts: Most of the competitive seats are in the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh suburbs, with a clear path to the majority. Out of 203 seats, Biden won 87 by 10%+, which is treated as an illustrative floor. To get to the additional 15 seats, we’d need to win all but 1 of the Biden-won districts. (Notably, if you look at the 2020 Attorney General race, with Josh Shapiro – who is the Democratic nominee for governor this year – the floor for Democratic performance is significantly higher, with him winning 96 districts by 10%+.).
- Key Races:
- HD30: In this open seat outside of Pittsburgh, Democrats have nominated Arvind Venkat, a local ER doctor who held a program on local news during COVID. He is a stellar candidate with impressive fundraising.
- HD82: Another example of fair districting this is a new seat created in State College. Democrats have a strong shot at picking up this seat in a Biden +6 district.
- HD144: In this Bucks County district we have the county clerk of courts Brian Munroe as the Democratic nominee. Republican incumbent Polinchock is now facing a more Democratic seat than years past and his extreme record will be a problem here. In fact, he just voted for the constitutional amendment that would ban abortion in Pennsylvania.
- Polling: Perhaps no gubernatorial race has attracted more attention than Pennsylvania. Republicans nominated an abortion extremist in Doug Mastriano while Democrats easily nominated Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shapiro has some of the highest approval ratings in the country and should be a strong top of the ticket. The US Senate race also looks like it will give Democrats coattails down-ballot.