Gloomy Dems downplay expectations ahead of midterms

Democrats are tempering expectations about their chances of making big inroads in down-ballot contests a little more than a week ahead of midterm elections prospects, even after spending record-breaking amounts in state races.
Democratic voters were fired up after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Democrats are tempering expectations about their chances of making big inroads in down-ballot contests a little more than a week ahead of the midterm elections, even after spending record-breaking amounts in state races.

Cash has flowed into legislative and statewide elections this year as Democrats capitalized on momentum from the July Dobbs Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

But while Democrats have reached – and even surpassed – Republican spending in races that will determine the future of state policy, party strategists said this week they are battling the same historic and economic trends that have given Republicans an advantage in the higher-profile fight over control of Congress. 

Heading into Election Day, voters are more likely to choose a generic Republican over a generic Democrat, polls show, as concerns over a struggling economy, perceptions of rising crime and illegal immigration at the Southern Border — issues on which voters trust Republicans more than Democrats — have overtaken abortion rights and the health of American democracy that fueled Democratic hopes this summer. 

“We are cognizant of the historical context of the first midterm with a Democratic president in the White House,” said Ethan Broder of Forward Majority, a national super PAC founded in 2017 to support Democratic candidates in state legislative races. “Going into this cycle, really modest losses, in historical terms, would be bucking the trend for Democrats. And holding our ground would be an impressive feat.”

Democrats have been working for years to claw back the historic gains that Republicans made in state races in the 2010 midterms, when Republicans flipped 24 state legislative chambers and picked up six governor’s mansions. The GOP has held a majority of legislative chambers and governor’s mansions ever since. 

Democrats have convinced national donors to get involved in state-level races. A number of national groups that have formed in recent years or redirected spending from federal races, alarmed at how Republican-controlled state governments have been able to wield their majorities to enact conservative policies.  

Democratic advertisers are outspending Republicans in all five of the governors’ races that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Toss Up, according to AdImpact Politics, which tracks political ad spending. 

But recent surveys have showed Republicans gaining ground in several key states. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), the co-chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), the co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, both told Pluribus News in recent interviews that the same trend is showing up in their internal data.

Democrats have also pumped support into legislative races in an effort to reclaim ground they acknowledge they have ceded to Republicans.  

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s official wing focused on supporting legislative candidates, said in an Oct. 21 strategy memo that it had raised money at “its fastest pace ever” since the Dobbs decision, bringing in over $47 million for the cycle. 

Forward Majority plans to spend $20 million on legislative races this cycle. Another Democratic group, The States Project, says it will spend $60 million on behalf of Democratic candidates in several states. 

EMILY’s list, which focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, has long been a fundraising juggernaut for candidates in congressional races. The group more than tripled the size of its staff doing state and legislative work in 2017, following the election of former Republican President Donald Trump, said Christina Reynolds, the group’s vice president of communication. 

In response to the Dobbs decision, EMILY’s list has created new training for legislative candidates and partnered with other Democratic pro-abortion rights groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood. 

“So many of your rights are determined by who is in the governor’s mansion and who in the state legislature,” Raynolds said. 

Republicans, though, are also reporting record-breaking cash flows.

The Republican State Leadership Committee and its strategic policy partner, the State Government Leadership Foundation, reported in early October that they had raised more this cycle than any other in their history. The two groups had raised a total of $71 million for the 2022 elections – including $18.5 million in the third quarter fundraising period – beating their total haul for the 2020 cycle already.

National groups such as the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire Charles Koch, also spend money on state and legislative races. 

This year, Americans for Prosperity has been engaged in over four hundred races at the state level, mostly in state legislatures. They are focusing on persuading voters around the economy, inflation, energy and gas prices and education opportunity and choice, spokesman Bill Riggs said.

Republicans have also been able to solidify their advantages in the redistricting process, and the number of competitive legislative state legislatures shrank to a handful after the new legislative lines were drawn this year. 

Democrats came into the cycle humbled after promising to flip as many as 15 state legislative chambers in 2020 and failing to win any. The only legislative chambers that changed party hands in 2020 were in New Hampshire, where Republicans ousted Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate. 

This cycle, the DLCC says it is focusing on protecting Democrats in chambers where they have majority control, and making modest gains in those controlled by Republicans. 

“We have always been clear-eyed about this cycle,” DLCC strategist Jessica Post wrote in the October strategy memo. “If we can mitigate losses during a tough political cycle, we’ll be able to go offense in more challenging territory late in the decade.”

But Democratic strategists also point out that even modest gains can make a big difference in legislative races.

“There are razor thin margins across a wide swath of states in which every vote and every seat will matter and could turn out to be the deciding vote on issues like respecting the will of the people in the 2024 presidential election,” said Daniel Squadron, a co-founder of The States Project. “We believe that every seat matters if we want the greatest chance of protecting democracy, protecting every individual’s rights and improving people’s lives.”

Forward Majority is focusing 70% of the $20 million it is spending this cycle on winning 25 seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona that would determine partisan control.

The group chose those targets with an eye on a redistricting case in North Carolina now before the Supreme Court that would give state legislatures more control over election outcomes, Moore v. Harper.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the so-called Independent State Legislature theory, Republicans would hold total control of states that account for 307 electoral votes — hypothetically, enough for Republican state legislatures to deny a Democratic president a majority, regardless of voting outcomes. Taking Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania out of the Republican column would reduce that number to 262 electoral votes, short of the 270 needed to win the White House, said Vicky Hausman, founder and CEO of Forward Majority.

“It’s very clear that these races routinely are decided by tens and hundreds of votes,” Hausman, said. “So it’s going to be a dogfight.” 

Democratic groups working to stave the losses their party has suffered in state legislatures have concentrated on registering and turning out voters – with a focus on women upset over the Dobbs decision – including in areas considered Republican strongholds.

“We know that we don’t necessarily have the wind at our backs, but we also know that the Dobbs decision has certainly lit a fire under Democrats, in terms of the need to come out and vote,” said Reynolds, of Emily’s List. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are expanding their target list  to six states where it hopes to flip legislatures – Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the Minnesota state House. The RSLC is closing out its campaigns with digital ads urging voters to put an end to one-party rule that is “threatening their financial and physical security,” an echo of GOP messaging around crime and pocketbook issues in competitive races across the map. 

The RSLC is defending GOP majorities in ten states – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin and the Minnesota Senate. 

“We’ve said from the start that our number one priority this year is defending our razor-thin majorities in states like Arizona, Michigan, and New Hampshire, as doing so will make this the first two-year cycle since 2013-2014 Republicans net-legislative chambers,” RSLC communications director Andrew Romeo said in an email.  “That hasn’t changed as we come down the stretch, but we also continue to press the attack in Democrat strongholds to put us in position to capitalize in case everything breaks our way on Election Night.” 

Even as the parties make their final arguments to voters, millions of Americans have already cast ballots.

In states where voters register by party, Democrats have built a clear edge. By Friday, 46% of early ballots cast in those states were from registered Democrats, while 32% were cast by registered Republicans, according to the United States Election Project. But experts, including Michael McDonald, who runs the project, caution against drawing conclusions from those figures, because Democrats tend to be more comfortable with early voting, while Republicans tend to cast more in-person ballots on Election Day.