Democrats Won State Legislatures by Getting Personal

Light blue background with image of blue wave, an American flag and the word "VOTE" laid over a ballot box and someone inserting their ballot into the box, black and white images of the Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania state maps, a black and white image of a calculator and bar graphs and New York Times front pages from 1934.

Following a series of controversial U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, state legislatures were thrown into center stage once again. But this time, Democrats were able to make history by defying the odds, bucking political wisdom and laying out the blueprint for Democratic wins at the state legislative level.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) — which recruits, trains and supports local Democrats running for state legislatures by providing campaign resources, field plans and data necessary to run winning campaigns — and state Democrats fended off big Republican spending to hold Democratic majorities across the country, making this the first midterm year since at least 1934 that the party that holds the White House hasn’t lost any legislative chambers. 

Earlier this year, the midterm conditions were shaping up to be very similar to 2010 — an onslaught of outside conservative funding, lies and stereotypical ads at the local level. For that reason, the DLCC began laying the groundwork to maximize the changing tides following a series of attacks on abortion rights from Republicans and the Supreme Court, shifting the focus to state legislatures where this battle for reproductive rights will now be fought across the nation for years to come. 

By spring, the DLCC announced its Path to The Majority strategy for the midterms and was supported by wins in states like Kansas, where voters rejected the GOP’s attempt to restrict abortion access, to inform the DLCC’s strategy. Across the country, Democrats began employing a new strategy — known as relational organizing — to win in states where complex conversations needed to be had and relied on the power of friends, family and neighbors to have those discussions.

These victories come at a crucial time as Democratic state legislatures have increasingly become our last line of defense against the rise of right-wing radical policies.

As the Democratic Party’s official campaign arm focused on electing Democrats to state legislatures across the nation, the DLCC partnered with the national leader in relational organizing, Empower Project, to roll out support to caucuses and candidates across the country by integrating a new style of organizing at the local level. Relational organizing centers on training volunteers to reach out to their friends and family to share personal stories about the issues that matter most to them. With most legislative races being decided by a handful of votes, this partnership was instrumental in helping candidates push for progress. After numerous cycles in the field, Empower Project boasts a battle-tested program fitted with technology and training to help campaigns and activists utilize one of the few remaining means of moving hearts and minds in an increasingly partisan world.

This year, voters faced tough issues, from fully grasping the impact of a post-Roe world to gun violence to existential attacks on the foundation of our democracy. By empowering campaigns and activists to have these conversations with their friends, neighbors and coworkers, DLCC candidates helped their communities understand how state legislatures directly impact their day-to-day lives and cut through the partisan divide of our country’s politics.

Along with the power of relational organizing, the DLCC focused on implementing a three-pronged strategy of protecting Democratic gains, mounting competitive challenges to winnable GOP-held majorities and building strategic power for future cycles with the help of data analytics, innovative technology and smart organizing in communities across the country. That strategy paid off: We prevented a single legislative chamber from flipping to Republicans and even flipped three legislative chambers from red to blue in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

These victories come at a crucial time as Democratic state legislatures have increasingly become our last line of defense against the rise of right-wing radical policies. Bolstered by outrage over the GOP’s crusade to ban abortion nationwide, the DLCC and its affiliated organizations raised over $50 million this cycle. Huge wins against election-denying candidates at the state level, combined with victories in legislative chambers in key swing states, dramatically reduced the odds that right-wing anti-democracy officials can overturn election results in 2024.

These victories will serve as a firewall to protect abortion rights and defend our democracy. Over 165 million Americans will have their reproductive freedom protected thanks to Democratic wins in these states. Additionally, Democrats will now control states that account for nearly 270 electoral votes — meaning that our democracy will be protected no matter how the Supreme Court rules in the independent state legislature theory case it is deciding this term. 

These historic wins are a testament to the work of the DLCC, the Empower Project, hundreds of excellent state legislative candidates, their staff and hardworking and passionate volunteers from across the country. There’s still a long road ahead until we’re at parity with Republicans in state legislatures, but we’re just getting started. 

Jessica Post is the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Mike Pfohl is the executive director of Empower Project.

This piece is part of Democracy Docket’s How We Won series, which features op-eds from candidates and organizations that answer the question: How did you win in the 2022 midterm elections and what does this victory mean for democracy?