Dems plan massive spending on legislative campaigns

The States Project announced Wednesday its intent to spend $70 million.
Voters walk past a sign pointing them to the polling location for in-person voting, Nov. 8, 2022, in Cranberry Township, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Three major groups plan to spend an unprecedented $165 million backing Democratic candidates running for state legislative seats, a jaw-dropping sum that underscores the new priorities both parties are placing on contests that were once sleepy down-ballot affairs.

The States Project, a dark money group founded by big Democratic donors, said Wednesday it plans to raise and spend $70 million on legislative contests in nine competitive states. The group said it had already raised $45 million during the current election cycle.

That spending will be on top of the $60 million goal set by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an older group that backs candidates at the state level, and $35 million from Forward Majority Action, another outside group.

Party strategists say the money spent on local races goes further than donations to presidential campaigns or campaigns for Congress.

“State legislatures will determine the rights and freedoms we have and the direction our country takes. The stakes couldn’t be higher, which is why we are working to make this historic investment,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator who founded The States Project.

The groups have similar, if slightly varying, targets: They will spend to protect thin Democratic majorities in Michigan, Minnesota and the Pennsylvania House, all chambers in which Democrats captured majorities in the 2022 midterm elections. They are targeting narrow Republican majorities in Arizona and New Hampshire.

Forward Majority said last year it would also target seats in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, where Republicans hold larger majorities.

The States Project plans to invest in Wisconsin, where new legislative maps give Democrats a better chance of making inroads against large Republican majorities, and in Kansas, where Republicans hold enough seats to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) veto. It will also spend money in Nevada, where Democrats are just short of a supermajority they would need to override Gov. Joe Lombardo’s (R) veto.

The DLCC plans to spend across all of those states. Sam Paisley, the DLCC’s spokeswoman, said her group had raised half of the $60 million it has budgeted for the year — a budget four times larger than what the group raised and spent in the 2016 election cycle.

“This ballot level can have a reverse coattail effect, because our candidates actually live in their communities,” Paisley said. “We can turn voters out where federal races aren’t always present.”

For years, Republicans spent more time and money focused on state legislative races than did Democrats. The GOP scored historic wins during the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans toppled Democratic majorities in 20 state legislative chambers — a red tsunami from which Democrats are still trying to recover.

Michael Joyce, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, declined to specify his group’s budget for this year’s election cycle. But in April, the RSLC and the State Government Leadership Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit, said they had raised $12 million in the first quarter of the year and $47 million for the cycle.

At the same point in the previous cycle, the RSLC and the SGLF had raised just $6.2 million.

“It should come as no surprise that state Democrats are running their traditional playbook this cycle — banking on massive investments from the national liberal money machine to try to bail them out for their failed policies that are out of step with voters,” Joyce told Pluribus News. “While the constellation of Democratic outside groups will outspend us as usual this year, Republicans are more trusted to solve the most pressing issues facing families, such as the rising cost of living and the border crisis.”

Voters this year will elect state legislators in 44 states, representing 85 legislative chambers. Only Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland do not have regularly scheduled legislative elections coinciding with the presidential contest.

As presidential campaigns have become billion-dollar businesses, U.S. Senate seats routinely attract several hundred million in spending and the cost of campaigns for the U.S. House has spiked, so too has the cost of running for state legislative seats.

Data from OpenSecrets, the independent nonprofit that tracks campaign spending, found contributions to state House and Senate candidates in the 2022 election cycle topped $1.6 billion, up 33% over the previous cycle. Spending on state legislative races has topped $1 billion in every election cycle since 2010.

Already this year, candidates running for state legislative offices have raised nearly $500 million, the OpenSecrets data shows. But that figure represents only a fraction of the total amount candidates have raised: Several states do not require frequent campaign finance reports.

The totals also do not include money raised by the national outside groups, or by countless independent expenditure and party organizations that operate in specific states.

This story has been updated with a comment from RSLC spokesman Michael Joyce.