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Presidential battle could play role in control of state capitols in several swing states

NH State House
Ali Oshinskie
/
NHPR
NH State House, Concord, NH. Ali Oshinskie photo for NHPR

While Republicans seek to reverse their 2022 losses, Democrats are pushing to flip closely divided, GOP-led legislative chambers in Arizona and New Hampshire.

Two swing districts in a swing county may very well decide which party controls the House in the swing state of Pennsylvania, one of several where pivotal legislative battles are playing out in the shadow of the presidential campaign.

Democrat Brian Munroe and Republican Joe Hogan were elected nearly two years ago to their seats in the suburbs north of Philadelphia, winning by margins of 515 and 76 votes, respectively, out of more than 30,000 ballots cast.

Their races this year are among a few dozen nationally that could determine party control in state capitols and, ultimately, who sets public policy on such contentious issues as abortion, guns and transgender rights. The contests are particularly important due to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have weakened federal regulatory oversight and returned more power to states.

"State legislatures will determine the rights and freedoms we have and the direction our country takes. The stakes couldn't be higher," said Daniel Squadron, co-founder of The States Project, which recently announced a $70 million effort to aid Democratic legislative candidates in certain states.

All told, groups aligned with Democrats and Republicans are planning to pour a couple hundred million dollars into state legislative battles. Nearly 5,800 legislative seats in 44 states are up for election this year. The top targets include a half-dozen states where control of a chamber is in play — Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Most of those states also are presidential battlegrounds. In some cases, national political groups are trying to link legislative candidates to the fortunes of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. In others, they are trying to distinguish them from the top of the ticket.

Biden sought to rebound from a poor debate performance by campaigning in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But his political problems have led some Democrats to suggest he should step aside and raised concern that down-ballot Democrats also could suffer if discouraged Democrats choose not to vote.

Democrats won a slim 102-101 majority in the Pennsylvania House two years ago. But Republicans expressed confidence they can retake the chamber this year, citing inflation, immigration and Biden's troubles.

"If the election were held tomorrow, I'd feel great about it," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Josh Kail, head of the campaign efforts for Pennsylvania House Republicans.

The Republican State Leadership Committee already has run ads in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin pinning inflation on Biden and other Democrats while touting Republican legislative candidates.

Democrats are targeting Wisconsin after a new liberal majority of the state Supreme Court struck down the previous Republican-drawn districts that had entrenched the GOP in power. The new districts, backed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, improve Democrats' chances.

The Supreme Court's 2022 decision overturning a half-century of abortion rights showed both the influence of national politics in state elections and the importance of state legislatures. After the ruling, many Republican-led states banned or limited abortion while many Democratic-led states strengthened abortion protections.

The ruling gave Democrats a new campaign theme for the 2022 legislative elections, which were the first conducted under voting districts redrawn using 2020 census data. Democrats wrested control of legislative chambers away from Republicans in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

This year's reelection bids by Hogan and Munroe are among 15 Pennsylvania House races spotlighted by the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Both of their Bucks County districts gave slightly more than half their votes to Biden four years ago and a larger margin to Democrats John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro in their 2022 races for U.S. Senate and governor.

"We believe we have a great opportunity not just to protect our majority in the suburbs, but to grow our majority," Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Matt Bradford said.

Democrat Anna Payne, who is challenging Hogan, sees abortion rights, public safety and school funding as the key issues.

"To some extent, people are looking for common sense," Payne said. "They don't want anybody who's too extreme on one side or too extreme on the other."

Hogan, a former congressional aid, has burnished a moderate image in the General Assembly, working on childhood education and public transit, among other things.

"I'm willing to work with anybody to do what I think is the right thing," Hogan said.

Rosemary Donahue, a 77-year-old retired nurse and registered Republican, said she has received mail from Hogan and will be evaluating his performance on such issues as fixing roads, supporting schools and women's health rights. She regularly follows state and national politics.

"If you watch television, you can't think of anything else, because you're constantly being bombarded by the presidential election, advertisements and all," Donahue said.

Arlene McBride, who recently became one of Munroe's constituents, said she'll be watching his race with Bucks County Recorder of Deeds Dan McPhillips to see who is more inclined to preserve the social safety net. She ranks women's health, education and welcoming immigrants among her top issues.

"Do they care about others or are they strictly for business?" said McBride, 90, a registered Democrat. "It doesn't seem that those who are strictly for big business really care about the less fortunate."

Research has shown that many voters know little about their state legislative candidates, so "national politics will probably dominate the state legislative elections," said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University who focuses on state legislatures.

While Republicans seek to reverse their 2022 losses, Democrats are pushing to flip closely divided, GOP-led legislative chambers in Arizona and New Hampshire.

Immigration and inflation are especially hot issues in Arizona. And abortion rights supporters recently submitted petition signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. That has raised the stakes in a state where voter registration is divided almost equally among Republicans, independents and Democrats.

"I'm expecting a lot of the national issues — the national dynamics — to really play into the legislative races in Arizona because of our battleground-state status," said James Strickland a political scientist at Arizona State University.

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