As President Joe Biden casts the race for the White House as a fight to save democracy, state-level Democrats say that battle is already well underway in what they’re calling “the year of the states.”

The party committee dedicated to state legislative races raised more than $21 million in 2023, a record-breaking sum for an off-year, and is laying out a roadmap for the year ahead in battleground states as well as red states where it sees an opportunity to break Republican legislative supermajorities, according to a memo released Wednesday and shared first with CNN.

Amid a high-stakes presidential election and a tight race for control of Congress, state-level races will be far down the 2024 ballot. But their relevance, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Heather Williams argues, is becoming more widely recognized – especially in the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade that made abortion an issue decided by states.

“There is more attention and sort of clarity about the importance and the impact that states have on not just people’s everyday lives, right, but also the president’s agenda, our party’s agenda,” Williams told CNN this week. “We’re really the center of gravity of where things are getting done.”

The strategy reflects ambitious fundraising goals and builds on recent successes, while acknowledging that Democrats had been behind Republicans in drawing maps and investing in these races over the last decade – and that that’s had tangible consequences for voters on issues like reproductive rights, voting rights and gun laws.

“The outcomes became greater than the coloring of a state on a map,” Williams said.

For Democrats nationally, Biden’s sagging poll numbers have fueled concerns that even his base may not be with him in November. But Williams pointed to more positive signs for voter enthusiasm in state-level races over the past year and a half.

“We’re seeing in a post-Dobbs world, without question, we are seeing voters show up for these elections,” Williams said, noting that Democrats picked up legislative chambers in 2022 and 2023 and overperformed in special elections last year, even in some red territory. The DLCC’s grassroots fundraising is also a bright spot, despite what the memo calls “downward industry trends” – which Williams chalked up to their message about state-level politics having a direct impact on people’s lives. “If you care about access to abortion, it is state legislators who are the ones who can protect it,” she said.

The group’s priorities for 2024 are protecting majorities in the Michigan House, the Minnesota House and the Pennsylvania House – the latter of which they had to defend in five special elections just in 2023 alone. They’re also trying to flip the Arizona House and Senate, the New Hampshire House and Senate, and the Pennsylvania Senate.

The DLCC’s investments in red state legislatures are about protecting Democratic governors’ veto power – specifically in Kansas, Wisconsin and North Carolina. The group is also looking to build up Democratic legislative power in Georgia, which has a Republican governor.

The DLCC announced its first round of battleground investments in December – devoting six-figures to key chambers in Michigan, Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, where that money is already helping candidate recruitment and training.

But, illustrating the potential challenges of 2024, those are also presidential battlegrounds. Four of those six states are hosting top-tier Senate races. And while overlapping targets allows for great coordination of party resources, a potential presidential rematch between two unpopular candidates and the increasing nationalization of elections could make this year a more complicated political environment for down-ballot races.

Most immediate on the DLCC’s horizon for this year, according to its roadmap, is a special election for the Florida House – in which Democrats have an opportunity to flip a seat – that’s happening the day after next week’s Iowa caucuses. There are two special elections in New Hampshire on the same day as the state’s GOP presidential primary. The Pennsylvania House has yet another special election in February, with control of the chamber at stake, followed by two elections for the Michigan House in April that could decide control of the chamber.

The DLCC’s goal, announced last year, is a budget of $60 million. That’s $10 million more than its budget for the 2022 cycle – and four times as large as its 2016 budget. But despite their record-breaking haul in 2023, that leaves more than half yet to be raised during the on-year, when big donors and grassroots supporters alike will be inundated with solicitations from the top of the ticket, as well as US Senate and House campaigns.

And while the DLCC is excited about its growth in fundraising and the strides the party has made in prioritizing these races, there’s more to be done. “There’s still a healthy gap between the investments that we’re seeing in state legislative races and in the DLCC compared to, you know, our federal counterparts,” Williams said.

To put their budget in perspective, even a losing Democratic Senate campaign in Florida in 2022 spent nearly $80 million, according to tallies from Open Secrets.

“We are seeing, certainly, increased investment in these races, but we’re still seeing that investment come really late in the election,” Williams said, noting that she would have liked to see earlier investment in last year’s Virginia legislative elections, where the DLCC spent $2.2 million and won full control of the legislature. “It becomes critically important when we are competing with statewide and congressional races.”

But Virginia’s elections, where Democratic candidates largely framed their message around “protecting rights,” also offered a critical lesson for campaigns trying to break through in a crowded national environment.

“What we learned in Virginia, which continued to prove something that we saw in 2022, is that these candidates in these communities on the doors having conversations with voters matters so much,” Williams said. “And it matters so much because there is so much noise.”

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