Dem donors ignored state legislature races for a long time. Dobbs brought new attention.
Democratic donors are going big on stopping Gov. Glenn Youngkin from taking control of the Virginia legislature.
The States Project is investing more than $4.5 million in next month’s Virginia legislative races, building on its successful investment to flip several statehouses in 2022.
Democrats control the Virginia Senate by a 22-18 majority, and Republicans hold the House by a similarly slim margin. Winning a majority in both chambers could set the stage for a Democratic trifecta in 2025, with big-name Democrats already looking at running for governor. Democrats are worried, though, that it’s equally possible that Youngkin could win a trifecta of his own in November.
“Our side needs to stop treating state legislatures like the minor leagues and start investing in them like the vital races that they are,” said Adam Pritzker, a Democratic donor who co-founded The States Project with Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic state senator for New York.
The electoral investment from the States Project, which is funded by The PAC for America’s Future, comes at a time when many impactful policies — especially abortion rights — are decided at the state level. Democrats have harnessed new energy turning out voters after the Dobbs decision last year, and they hope to continue to channel that energy into the Virginia legislative races this fall.
“What they’re doing is making sure that we elevate the issues that we need to be elevating around abortion and around issues making sure we protect our future democracy and voting rights,” Virginia House Democratic Leader Don Scott told POLITICO, saying the support has been crucial for boots-on-the-ground campaign work.
The States Project targets state legislative districts with the thinnest margins and helps fund data analysis, do ad testing, leverage local press and door-knocking — all important tools that allow candidates to get in front of the voters they need.
After Virginia, The States Project also plans to spend millions more on other state legislative races across the country in 2024. The investments follow the organization putting $60 million in statehouse races in 2022. The group’s leaders credit these funds with fueling new Democratic majorities in the House chambers of Michigan and Pennsylvania and the Minnesota state Senate. The group also invested last year in Arizona, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada and New Hampshire.
But as much as the group is going on offense, it recognizes defense is also important. In 2024, the group plans to protect existing majorities in the Michigan House and Senate, the Minnesota House and Senate and the Pennsylvania House.
“This is not a one and done situation. It requires continued investments and resources and people who care year after year,” Pritzker said of guarding against reversing 2022 victories. “We want to make sure wins we gain are wins we keep.”
The group also wants to win majorities in the Arizona House and Senate and is targeting the New Hampshire legislature and the Pennsylvania Senate. The icing on the cake would be to break the Republican supermajority in the Kansas House and expand on their large majorities in Nevada.
Last year, Kansans voted in favor of protecting abortion rights only to see state lawmakers advance a series of anti-abortion laws through both chambers and override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes. Pritzker and Squadron said defeating the anti-abortion ballot measure in Kansas was proof that much depends on what happens at the state level, but that they still have work to do there.
“Democrats are still way too focused on D.C.,” Pritzker said. “They’re missing how much is at stake in state legislatures.”
Pritzker put some of his fortune toward the States Project, but the group relies mostly on “giving circles,” or small groups that adopt a state and raise money through social events. The giving circles started in 2017 and have included backyard meet-ups, cocktail parties and “bake sales for democracy,” often headlined by candidates.
The States Project leaders believe strongly in grassroots engagement. “I knocked on nearly 10,000 doors,” said Squadron, who was 28 when he first ran in 2008 for the state legislature and successfully took on a 30-year incumbent in a Democratic primary.
“Too often candidates are faced with the choice between being told to go in a dark room and raise money or get out there and actually meet voters,” said Squadron, who was the youngest state senator at the time.
Squadron had entered the legislature in the majority, where he was able to pass public housing bills and shepherd efforts to establish new parks in his district.
But the next session, Democrats lost the majority in New York and he toiled for the next seven years in the minority. Squadron said he got a “fraction” of the work done that he wanted. “A lot of time was hitting my head against the wall,” he said.
Squadron met Pritzker, who is part of the major Democratic donor family that founded the Hyatt Hotel empire, in 2017 and they decided to team up to fuel these races that are all too often ignored by donors.
“I don’t think anybody would say that the presidential election is under-resourced or under-covered by the media,” said Pritzker. “But state legislative candidates are.”