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Abortion ruling highlights democratic disconnect on state races

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As Democrat Veronica Klinefelt goes door-to-door in the suburban Michigan community she hopes to represent in the state Senate, she says she has to repeatedly argue that the outcome of her race counts in a larger fight for the right to abortion.

“It’s almost like people think there’s nothing to be done and the Supreme Court has ruled and that’s it,” said Klinefelt, who is seeking a Detroit-area seat. “They just don’t seem able to understand that these decisions translate into more power at the state level.”

Three weeks after the court decision decision to erase a constitutional right to abortion, Democratic candidates and legislative contest strategists across the country are trying to capitalize on the outrage over the decision and their newfound power to influence abortion laws to generate more enthusiasm for their campaigns. But some say longstanding challenges to getting attention have persisted in the wake of the ruling.

Abortion is now prohibited in these states. See where the laws have changed.

For years, Republicans have cemented an advantage in state legislative races, recognize strategists from both parties, allowing them to push through conservative legislation on abortion and other issues, even at times like this. , when the Democrats control Congress and the White House. Democrats hoping to inject new urgency into these contests are demanding more money and attention from party leaders — with no clear indication that they will get what they want.

Instead, Democratic messaging has largely focused on federal races and a debate over the Senate filibuster, some frustrated Democrats noted, even as individual states now have discretion over abortion laws. . Some of those Democrats are expressing their displeasure with party leaders for not raising local races more aggressively and devoting more financial resources to contests.

“You’re not going to be successful if all you do is say, ‘Go elect another U.S. senator,'” said David Pepper, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of “Laboratories of Autocracy.” , a book about GOP power in state legislatures. “The front lines of attacks on democracy and fundamental rights are state houses. We have to act accordingly or we are permanently on the defensive. And when you are on permanent defense, you ultimately lose.

In Michigan, Klinefelt says she detects a tendency to donate money to congressional candidates as she dials for dollars, saying she frequently speaks to donors who are used to giving in races. federal and see no benefit in spending on local groceries. “It didn’t occur to them that the state-level investment will have a bigger impact on their lives,” she said.

Her condition is one that activists on both sides of the abortion debate are targeting closely in the wake of the court ruling. Abortion rights activists are also considering takeovers of the Minnesota and New Hampshire legislative chambers in November. And they’re trying to protect Democratic majorities in Colorado and Maine and prevent an anti-abortion supermajority in North Carolina.

Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is running for re-election as a staunch opponent of reinstating a 1931 abortion ban in her state. The GOP-led legislature is pushing for the ban, which has been blocked by the courts, to be enforced. Some activists are also pushing for a ballot initiative to establish abortion rights in state law.

While the GOP controls the Michigan State House and Senate, Democrats have made gains in recent years and a nonpartisan redistricting commission has offered the party what leaders see as a favorable map. Democrats need a net gain of just three Senate seats to tie the upper house.

“We are an afterthought and we shouldn’t be,” said Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat. “We should be in front of the table. If it’s a buffet, I want to be in front. I don’t want to be at the end when there are only snippets.

Democrats who are calling for more representation in state legislatures say Republicans have long overorganized them. Of the nation’s 99 state legislatures, Republicans control 62 while Democrats dominate 37. The GOP holds full control of 30 state legislatures while Democrats hold a full majority in just 17.

Nonpartisan observers have a low opinion of the Democratic chances of narrowing the gap significantly this fall. Only four chambers are classified as “toss-ups” by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. And three of them are held by Democrats. Now, Democrats watching these races are pointing the finger at their ability to take real action on abortion, relative to Congress.

“As soon as we take over a state legislature, we will do something to protect abortion in the state,” said Jessica Post, chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or DLCC, the main organization trying to elect Democrats. in state legislatures. “In fact, the only Democratic trifecta in government that hasn’t protected abortion is the federal government.”

While Democratic leaders in Washington, including President Biden, are now pushing to codify abortion rights in Congress, the party does not have the votes to do so, due to resistance from some centrists within their ranks. to changing Senate rules to overcome GOP opposition.

Some Democrats familiar with state races have said they’re concerned the state’s legislative campaign efforts aren’t getting enough money from the Democratic National Committee, which funneled $15 million to key federal state committees. Senate and House earlier this year and did not make a similar payment to the DLCC.

A person familiar with the funding decision noted that the DLCC is allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money while the federal House and Senate committees are not. DNC aides say they have significantly increased their direct financial commitments to states, albeit through different channels, including giving money to state parties.

These people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy more openly.

In some ways, Democrats considering state legislative races have had recent success. From April to June, the DLCC raised $6.75 million – a second quarter record for the organization.

During the same period, the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Democratic group’s GOP counterpart, raised $9.8 million.

Democratic Senate candidates, even in states where they are considered outsiders, have raised far more than the DLCC. Representative Val Demings, a Democrat taking on Senator Marco Rubio (right) in Florida, said he raised more than $12 million in the second quarter. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat running for an open Senate seat in Ohio, brought in more than $9 million.

Several strategists see a longer-term trend, pointing to Democrat Amy McGrath’s failed Kentucky bid in the last cycle to unseat Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican — a race in which she raised massive sums but ultimately did not come close to winning.

In the weeks following the Supreme Court’s decision, the DLCC had conversations with the White House about how to elevate key races, according to a person familiar with the talks. A White House adviser said Biden plans to ramp up his domestic travels, which aides plan to include more of a focus on midterm campaigns on the ballot. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations and deliberations.

The DLCC has also been consistently overtaken by its GOP counterpart, although in recent years that gap has closed. The DLCC raised about $32 million during the 2018 campaign cycle, according to the most recent data available through the Center for Responsive Politics, or CRP. RSLC raised nearly $50 million in 2018, according to CRP.

Republicans say relatively new Democratic organizations, along with a constellation of various gun control groups and abortion rights groups, are more than closing the funding gap between the two parties. And they note that the RSLC has a broader portfolio than the DLCC, including endorsement of other statewide candidates like GOP Secretary of State.

Republican State Leadership Committee spokesman Andrew Romeo accused Democrats of “sending a smoke signal to their liberal billionaire donors out of political peril in state races.”

Some Democrats have said they are plagued by a problem of their own making: party figures who go on cable news shows and other platforms to urge voters to direct their outrage against abortion toward the battle for Congress.

“There are some people with a big megaphone who I think haven’t really gotten the message yet,” said Lala Wu, co-founder and executive director of Sister District, which works to elect Democrats in the state races. “The Democrats are way behind the party.”

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