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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Washington

Democrats target statehouse races in first big campaign spend of 2024

A sea of mostly women wearing summer clothes holding signs that are mostly pink and white.
Abortion-rights protesters at a rally outside the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on 24 June 2022. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

Democrats are targeting seven battlegrounds in their first campaign spend of the year on state legislature elections, the Guardian has learned, and intend to draw “clear contrasts” with Republican candidates tied to former US president Donald Trump.

The latest round of investments will deliver “critical resources” to Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) said.

The DLCC’s total spending for this electoral cycle is now close to $750,000. The money is used to support staff hiring, digital infrastructure, field operations and other expenditures.

Once seen by outsiders as sleepy backwaters, state legislative chambers have come into sharp focus in recent years because of their role in curbing reproductive freedoms, imposing book bans, assailing transgender rights and making it harder to vote.

With Trump dominating the presidential primary and all but certain to be the party nominee, some Republicans running for seats in swing states may try to distance themselves from a man seen as toxic among moderates and independents. Democrats, however, intend to hitch them to Trump at every opportunity.

“He is the Republican party,” said Heather Williams, the president of the DLCC, the arm of the Democratic party focused on building power at state level. “He is the leader of the Republican party. Republicans cannot escape from that and at this point it’s just a given, if you will, much like Joe Biden is our president and therefore the leader of the Democratic party.”

From Arizona to Oregon, from Idaho to Texas, many state-level Republican parties have embraced Trump and, in some cases, the QAnon conspiracy movement and white nationalism. Williams continued: “What we have seen in the Donald Trump era is that the Republican party is out of control. It is incredibly extreme. There is no idea that is out of the realm of possibility. They are very reactive and often looking for a way to elevate themselves over everything else.”

The consequences of Trump’s supreme court appointments – and their decision to end the constitutional right to abortion – were spelled out last week when the Alabama supreme court ruled that frozen embryos created during fertility treatments should be considered children. As some clinics halted IVF treatment, Trump and other Republicans scrambled to find a unified response.

Williams said: “It is that sort of chaotic approach inside the party that leads to a bunch of politicians not understanding what IVF is and the role that it plays in people who desperately and deeply want to have a family and who are trying and spending incredible resources. It’s where you see these ideas suddenly take shape and completely run away from Republicans.

“The Republican party has a soul to find and has completely lost it. There are no rules any more over there. We are working hard at the DLCC to make sure that we’re creating clear contrasts and we are elevating what it looks like under Republican control – Florida is a prime example here – versus what it looks like when you gain Democratic control. Michigan is a beautiful example on that side in what they were doing for their state, their community and their constituents.”

She added: “The more we’re able to tell that story, to help shape the choices, we will. Virginia [last year] was such a great example of this. We talked a lot about how if voters went to the the polls on Tuesday, election day, and woke up on Wednesday with Republican control of their statehouse, that there would be an abortion ban.

“There is now a clear understanding of what the stakes are and why it’s so important to not just use your voice to talk about the issues you care about, to elevate them and to bring awareness but then to follow that action up with voting. That is so key and that’s the story we’re trying to tell.

The DLCC’s biggest spend, $70,000, is in Pennsylvania, where Democrats won the statehouse in 2022 by a one-seat majority. There have since been six special elections, each with control of the chamber at stake, and Democrats have won all six. Retaining control of the statehouse is a top strategic priority.

Democrats flipped both the Michigan house and senate in 2022, securing a trifecta with the governor, Gretchen Whitmer, but two special elections in April will decide control of the house. The DLCC regards Wisconsin as one of its best opportunities to gain seats after the governor, Tony Evers, signed new maps into law following a long fight against Republican gerrymandering.

It is also aiming to flip the Arizona house and senate in a state that has seen recent success for Democrats and remains intensely competitive.

“Republicans continue to govern in the statehouse as if it’s 1924 and nobody has any rights but the men,” Williams said. “We have more tools and resources and a better platform to hold them accountable than ever before and that is exactly what we plan to do.”

An “umbrella of freedom” that includes access to abortion, IVF and contraceptives, as well as democratic participation and gun safety, will be a central campaign theme. “Those conversations are rich and they are happening at the door. They were certainly a part of the elections in 2023 and we expect them to continue to be a conversation in 2024.”

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