What's at stake in 2022 state legislative elections More than 6,000 state legislative seats are up for election this year. Republicans and Democrats are spending tens of millions in a battle to shift the balance of power in these chambers.

State legislative races are on the front lines of democracy this midterm cycle

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A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

Any time there's an election, the top of the ticket grabs most of the attention. But more than 6,000 seats in state legislatures are also on the midterm ballot. Our colleague Rachel Martin asked NPR's Laura Benshoff what's at stake.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So these lawmakers pass thousands of state laws every year. They have also, though, moved into policy areas like abortion rights, voting. Explain this evolution.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: These state legislatures have become much more powerful in the last couple of decades. I spoke with a University of Missouri professor who studies them named Peverill Squire about this.

PEVERILL SQUIRE: It's become very difficult for Congress to reach decisions. And so that has left the field vacant for state legislatures to act. And they have been moving quite aggressively.

BENSHOFF: He says some of that is the states kind of picking up slack when Congress doesn't act. For example, states had climate change laws before the federal government finally passed its first major climate legislation package earlier this year. State lawmakers are also banning transgender students from playing sports or defining what curriculum can be taught in schools, you know. And the courts and federal government have also given state legislatures more power. For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, it made abortion rights a state policy issue, as you said.

MARTIN: So these are hugely consequential policies, laws. And state legislative races, though, with all this power, they can actually fly under the radar. And they haven't attracted the same levels of campaign funding as congressional or Senate races in the past. Is that changing?

BENSHOFF: A little bit. You know, the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races can draw in the hundreds of millions of dollars. That's for one race. And if you contrast that with what the Republican State Leadership Committee told me - that's the group that funds races on behalf of the GOP - their spokesperson said they broke their previous fundraising record this year, bringing in over $70 million. That's for all the races they're putting money into this year. That spokesperson told me they're putting some of that money into TV ads during the home stretch of the campaign. They're running them in Maine, Nevada and Colorado. These are states where Republicans think they could take the majority in one chamber. And the ads kind of follow the exact same formula. Here's a sampling of what that sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) One-party rule in Nevada is a disaster for your finances.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Nevada's average is now $5.50 a gallon.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) One-party rule in Colorado is a disaster for your finances.

One-party rule in Maine is a disaster for your finances.

BENSHOFF: So as in other races, Republicans are really focusing on the economy and crime. One important piece of context, though, is that the GOP has a significant head start in many states. They control about two-thirds of the chambers that are up this year. And they oversaw the process to draw district lines in many places, which gives them an ongoing edge in elections. By contrast, Democrats say they're playing catch-up. The party and its supporters are stepping up fundraising and messaging around statehouse races. You know, for example, the head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee told me they'd raised about $45 million. And just two superPACs - these outside spending groups aligned with Democrats - are spending another $80 million.

MARTIN: Explain why they see this investment, this huge investment, as being so critical.

BENSHOFF: For some of the groups I talked to, it's about the health of U.S. democracy. They're looking back at 2020. That's when some Republican state lawmakers in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin took steps to challenge the election results. They were encouraged to that, of course, by former President Donald Trump. And while they weren't ultimately successful, things could look different in 2024.

MARTIN: How so?

BENSHOFF: You know, the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a case later this year that could give state legislatures even more power, specifically power over federal elections. The justices could end up affirming a fringe legal argument called the independent state legislature theory. Here's Vicky Hausman with the Democratically aligned PAC Forward Majority.

VICKY HAUSMAN: This theory, taken to its logical conclusion, would allow legislatures to bypass the popular vote in their state and send their own slate of electors for the presidential election in 2024.

BENSHOFF: That's an extreme scenario, but that's why her group is spending money to help Democrats increase their numbers or even take control in key state legislatures. They want to be there if it looks like some of their GOP colleagues want to discredit election results again.

MARTIN: NPR's Laura Benshoff, thank you.

BENSHOFF: Thanks, Rachel.

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