Why Little-Noticed State Legislative Races Could Be Hugely Consequential

EASTPOINTE, Mich. — The conversation started with potholes.

Veronica Klinefelt, a Democratic candidate for State Senate in suburban Detroit, was out knocking on doors as she tries to win a seat her party sees as critical for taking back the chamber. “I am tired of seeing cuts in aging communities like ours,” she told one voter, gesturing to a cul-de-sac pocked with cracks and crevasses. “We need to reinvest here.”

What went largely unspoken, however, was how this obscure local race has significant implications for the future of American democracy.

The struggle for the Michigan Senate, as well as clashes for control of several other narrowly divided chambers in battleground states, have taken on outsize importance at a time when state legislatures are ever more powerful. With Congress often deadlocked and conservatives dominating the Supreme Court, state governments increasingly steer the direction of voting laws, abortion access, gun policy, public health, education and other issues dominating the lives of Americans.

The Supreme Court could soon add federal elections to that list.

The justices are expected to decide whether to grant nearly unfettered authority over such elections to state legislatures — a legal argument known as the independent state legislature theory. If the court does so, many Democrats believe, state legislatures could have a pathway to overrule the popular vote in presidential elections by refusing to certify the results and instead sending their own slates of electors.

While that might seem like a doomsday scenario, 44 percent of Republicans in crucial swing-state legislatures used the power of their office to discredit or try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to a New York Times analysis. More like-minded G.O.P. candidates on the ballot could soon join them in office.

Republicans have complete control over legislatures in states that have a total of 307 electoral votes — 37 more than needed to win a presidential election. They hold majorities in several battleground states, meaning that if the Supreme Court endorsed the legal theory, a close presidential election could be overturned if just a few states assigned alternate slates of electors.

Democrats’ chances of bringing Republicans’ total below 270 are narrow: They would need to flip the Michigan Senate or the Arizona Senate, and then one chamber in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in 2024, in addition to defending the chambers the party currently controls.

Democrats and Republicans have set their sights on half a dozen states where state legislatures — or at least a single chamber — could flip in November. Democrats hope to wrest back one of the chambers in Michigan and the Arizona Senate, and flip the Minnesota Senate. Republicans aim to win back the Minnesota House of Representatives and take control of one chamber, or both, in the Maine, Colorado and Nevada legislatures. They are also targeting Oregon and Washington.

An avalanche of money has flowed into these races. The Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s campaign arm for state legislative races, has regularly set new fund-raising records, raising $71 million this cycle. The group’s Democratic counterpart has also broken fund-raising records, raising $45 million. Outside groups have spent heavily, too: The States Project, a Democratic super PAC, has pledged to invest nearly $60 million in five states.

The television airwaves, rarely a place where state legislative candidates go to war, have been flooded with advertising on the races. More than $100 million has been spent nationwide since July, an increase of $20 million over the same period in 2020, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

Democrats are finding, however, that motivating voters on an issue as esoteric as the independent state legislature theory is not an easy task.

“Voters care a whole lot about a functioning democracy,” said Daniel Squadron, a Democratic former state senator from New York and a founder of the States Project. But, he said, the independent state legislature “threat still feels as though it’s on the horizon, even though it’s upon us.”

For some Republicans, the issue of the independent state legislature theory is far from the campaign trail, and far from their concerns.

“If it’s a decision by the Supreme Court, based on their legal opinion, I would defer to their legal expertise,” said Michael D. MacDonald, the Republican state senator running against Ms. Klinefelt. “I certainly respect the court’s opinion when they make it. I think it’s important that we do.”

Instead, Republicans are focusing on economic topics like inflation.

“The economy remains the issue that voters are most concerned about in their daily lives, and is the issue that will decide the battle for state legislatures in November,” said Andrew Romeo, the communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. The group’s internal polling shows that inflation and the cost of living are the No. 1 priority in every state surveyed.

The issues defining each election vary widely by district. Some of them, like roads, school funding and water, are hyperlocal — subjects that rarely drive a congressional or statewide race.

In the Detroit suburbs, Mr. MacDonald said he had heard the same concerns.

“When they have something to say, it’s never ‘Joe Biden’ or ‘Donald Trump,’ it’s, ‘Hey, you know, actually my road, it’s a little bumpy, what can you do?’” Mr. MacDonald said. He added, “Sometimes it could be as small as, ‘Can they get a garbage can from our garbage contractor?’”

His pitch to voters, in turn, focuses on money that Macomb County, which makes up a large part of the district, has received from the state budget since he was elected four years ago.

5 Takeaways From the Campaign Trail

Jazmine UlloaTracking elections from Washington

5 Takeaways From the Campaign Trail

Jazmine UlloaTracking elections from Washington

Justin Merriman, Haiyun Jiang and Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The elections are less than 35 days away, and our reporters are across the country following candidates and analyzing the campaigns.

Turmoil struck Herschel Walker’s campaign in Georgia, Senate candidates faced off in Arizona and Ohio has a new focus on election security.

Here’s a look at the week in political news →

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A woman who said Herschel Walker paid for her abortion in 2009 told The New York Times that he urged her to end a second pregnancy two years later. Walker, a staunch abortion opponent vying for a Senate seat in Georgia, has denied her previous claims. Interviews and documents obtained by The Times corroborated her account.

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Emily Elconin for The New York Times

Things are looking up for Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat. She has gone from being considered one of the most vulnerable governors this midterm cycle to leading in polls. Her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, has struggled to gain traction, but former President Donald J. Trump recently visited the state to give her a boost.

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Rebecca Noble/Reuters

Trump has another rally on Sunday in Arizona, where his pick, Kari Lake, is locked in a dead heat with her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, in the governor’s race. Lake, a former news anchor, stumped recently with Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

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Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Ohio’s election department will now have a public integrity division, which will investigate attempts to obstruct or interfere with voting. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, cited a “crisis of confidence among Americans in our nation’s electoral system” but said that voter fraud was rare.

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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Debates have been rare in an era when candidates prefer to speak directly to their base. But contenders have faced off in several states, including Arizona. Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, pitched himself as a centrist. His Republican opponent, Blake Masters, sought to turn the race into a referendum on President Biden.

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