This year’s midterms were historic – especially at the state legislative level. A week later, votes continue to be counted in important state legislative races – including that of Sister District candidate Melissa Cerrato, whose win could clinch a Pennsylvania house flip. As we wrote last week, the Sister District community had a tremendous and creative year providing fundraising, field support, and candidate services support to our 2022 candidate class, and made an outsized impact on incredible wins at the district and chamber level.

The question on many people’s minds is — what happened in state legislative elections this year, and what does it mean for Democrats’ future prospects? The first thing to keep in mind is, beware hot takes. We should all be wary of takes that proclaim to fully understand this year’s results or that make bold claims about what they mean for the future. Keep in mind that the voter file, which will show who voted in the election (but not who they voted for), won’t be available for analysis until the new year.

Ok, now that we’ve got some caveats out of the way, let’s talk about what we do know – which is plenty! Read on for a few thoughts about what happened and why, given the information that is already available.

The Closing Argument: Do The Work.

This year’s state legislative results are thrilling, but not surprising. My closing argument heading into the 2022 election was consistent—get off the ‘pollercoaster’ and do the work. Let’s take heart, I suggested, in how historic and unusual it was for the President’s party to be so close in midterm polls. That in itself was a tremendous accomplishment for Democrats facing midterm headwinds. As we headed toward the election, I often mentioned long-time strategist Mike Podhorzer’s saying about close polls – don’t think of them as within the ‘margin of error’—think of them as within the ‘margin of effort.’ Election outcomes in close races are not predetermined, and it all comes down to which side talks to, and turns out more voters.

Going in, downballot Democrats certainly faced headwinds. Our ‘surge and decline’ research showed that the president’s party had lost at least 8.17% of its state legislative seats in battleground states during midterms over the last 2 decades. Democrats even lost aggregate state legislative seats in 2020, which is unusual, since Presidents tend to sweep in co-partisans downballot during presidental year elections. And our research on ballot roll-off indicated that downballot Democrats suffer from voters failing to vote all the way down the ballot more than downballot Republicans do. 

But there was plenty of reason for hope. Our research has shown that state legislative races and entire chambers are often decided by a tiny margin of votes – meaning that Democratic majorities were not wildly out of reach. Very importantly, I cautioned last year not to over-analyze the narrow Republican wins in Virginia in 2021 as portending disaster for Democrats this year. The data did not indicate that Virginia Democrats’ razor-thin losses would strongly portend a rout in the 2022 midterms, and instead, Democrats should go into 2022 clear-eyed and battle-ready, but not with an expectation of failure. And weeks and even days ahead of the election, polls indicated high enthusiasm on both sides and close contests (as Nate Silver later observed, Democrats actually didn’t really overperform all the polls. They overperformed vibes). There was no strong indication of a red wave coming. Instead, as Tuesday dawned, success was possible. 

The Results: A Great Night For Progressive State Power

As results continue to roll in, some things are already clear. Democrats defied historical trends in many state chambers. New blue trifectas blossomed in Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Maryland. Democrats held onto fragile legislative majorities in Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Nevada and Maine. The Pennsylvania House is on track to flip blue, and the Arizona senate may tie. Democrats gained veto-proof supermajorities in Vermont’s chambers, and held on to supermajority in the Delaware senate. Critically, Democrats also won enough seats to stave off Republican supermajorities in the Wisconsin and North Carolina houses, protecting the Democratic governors’ vetoes over abortion restrictions and more. According to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), this is the first midterm since 1934 that the President’s party has not lost a single state legislative chamber.

These are tremendous wins for abortion access, education and environmental policy. They will also go a long way in protecting our democracy, especially as we collectively begin to plan for 2024. Remember, whoever was elected to state legislatures this year will be in office during the critical post-2024 election period. With Republicans itching to use their unearned gerrymandered state legislative majorities to engineer election rules in their favor, and pending a potential massive expansion of state legislative power over federal elections via the ‘independent state legislature’ theory being argued in the Moore v Harper case pending at the Supreme Court, building pro-democracy Democratic ranks in our state chambers this year was existentially important to the future of our democracy.

The How: How Did Democrats Build State Legislative Power

Success has many mothers. Beware reductive analyses that point to just one factor leading to election outcomes. We will need to wait for all votes to be counted, and the voter file to be released, before offering a definitive analysis of this year’s results. But a few factors are already clear: 

  • The message that abortion access is now within the purview of states reached voters, including independents, who rejected restrictions in their states through ballot initiatives and state legislative candidates. 
  • The January 6th hearings elucidated the threats to democracy posed by Republicans, particularly by manipulation of state legislators and state rules, and many voters rejected that nightmarish vision of the future. 
  • Fairer state legislative maps in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania finally gave Democrats an opportunity to compete for majorities, while continued gerrymanders in places like Texas, Wisconsin and Florida kept Democrats from fair fights. 
  • State legislative Republicans often ran poor campaigns. After last year’s narrow Republican wins in Virginia, the Republican State Leadership Committee published a memo called  “How The RSCL Flipped the Virginia House.” It seemed obvious that this would be their 2022 playbook, but they simply did not implement it this year. State legislative Republicans in key chambers ran anemic campaigns, lagged in direct candidate fundraising and digital efforts. As at other levels of the ballot, state legislative Republicans suffered from what has become euphemistically described as a ‘candidate quality’ problem (including fielding over 1,100 Big Liars and insurrectionists). 
  • As usual, tiny margins led to legislative success all over the map. As just one example, just ~425 votes in a single North Carolina house district kept the entire state from Republican supermajority. If Democrat Diamond Staton-Williams had received just 425 fewer votes, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper would have lost the ability to veto abortion restrictions, “don’t say gay” copycat bills and other regressive legislation that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has introduced and will surely introduce again. 
  • Finally, year-round community-based organizing is critical to short-term wins and long-term infrastructure. In key chambers, our State Bridges partners made tremendous contributions. Campaigns for individual candidates are often transactional, which makes it difficult to persuade all potential voters in the course of a single campaign. As a party and a movement, we collectively need to support year-round organizing, the often unheralded and unsexy work of connecting the dots between issues people care about and building political power. This way, when a campaign comes by to ask someone to vote, the voter already feels connected to civic life and understands that they have a role in building political power, so that it can be wielded in ways that benefit their lives. We’re proud to support this work through our State Bridges program, which raised over $200,000 for our partners this year.

Words of Caution: We Didn’t Win Everywhere & Must Stay Vigilant Against GOP Extremism

While there is plenty to celebrate, it’s important to note that state Democrats didn’t win big in every state legislature. Republicans broke Oregon Democrats’ supermajorities in both chambers and gained a veto-proof supermajority in Florida. They also gained supermajorities in the North Carolina Senate, Wisconsin Senate, Iowa Senate and South Carolina House. 

And while many Big Liars lost their bids for state legislature, others succeeded, including former Minnesota state representatives and now newly elected state senators Glenn Gruenhagen, Steve Drazkowski and Eric Lucero, who participated in “Stop the Steal” demonstrations. Going into the election, nearly 25% of all Republican state legislators in the country had joined at least one far-right Facebook group – and many remain in office. The threats these state legislators pose to fair elections and democracy remain a clear and present danger to our nation, and we cannot allow wins this year to obscure the need for us to remain vigilant and ready for future acts of Republican treason and election subversion.

Looking to 2023 and 2024

With this week’s results delivering more chambers and legislatures into progressive control, there is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to use this new power to pass progressive legislation and build lasting, durable political infrastructure to rival the successful long-term state power project by conservatives. We cannot let these electoral wins be sandcastles. We have to build state power that has a solid foundation, both structurally and rhetorically. At Sister District, we’ll put this mandate into practice by supporting new and existing progressive state legislators through our Purple District Network program, and supporting great candidates who came up a bit short this year through our Future Winners program. We’ll also support long-term infrastructure by continuing our successful State Bridges program, working to raise small dollars and visibility for incredible year-round powerbuilding organizations on the ground in our states.

We’re also going to roll this electoral momentum right into 2023 and 2024. Next year, we’ll be headed back to Virginia to flip the house blue (again!) and hold the senate. We’ll also endorse candidates in Louisiana and Mississippi, which are often overlooked by national partners and organizations, but which are states with incredible progressive potential that deserve generous support. And while it’s quite early to know what 2024 will bring for us, I’m sure we’ll be looking to defend these new majorities and continue to build power in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and continue to defend against falling into Democratic superminority in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Finally, I want to close with the long view. Our efforts to build progressive power in state legislatures are constant and permanent, and will persist beyond any given year’s electoral results. This year’s wins are nourishing, and proof positive that our efforts and strategy work. But we’re in it for the long haul. We’ll keep supporting candidates, year-round organizers, and legislators. And we will also continue to work hard to expand our collective progressive imagination about how and why states matter. Our organization will continue to push toward a vision of progressive federalism. It is time to reimagine states as expansive and transformative venues for a progressive future. As Democrats look to the future, let’s use this moment of state legislative opportunity to lift the narrative about the importance, power, and promise of our states! As always, it’s a privilege and an honor for us to do this work in community with all of you.