EASTPOINTE, Mich. — The conversation started with potholes.
Veronica Klinefelt, a Democratic candidate for State Senate in suburban Detroit, was out knocking on doors as she tries to win a seat her party sees as critical for taking back the chamber. “I am tired of seeing cuts in aging communities like ours,” she told one voter, gesturing to a cul-de-sac pocked with cracks and crevasses. “We need to reinvest here.”
What went largely unspoken, however, was how this obscure local race has significant implications for the future of American democracy.
The struggle for the Michigan Senate, as well as clashes for control of several other narrowly divided chambers in battleground states, have taken on outsize importance at a time when state legislatures are ever more powerful. With Congress often deadlocked and conservatives dominating the Supreme Court, state governments increasingly steer the direction of voting laws, abortion access, gun policy, public health, education and other issues dominating the lives of Americans.
The Supreme Court could soon add federal elections to that list.
The justices are expected to decide whether to grant nearly unfettered authority over such elections to state legislatures — a legal argument known as the independent state legislature theory. If the court does so, many Democrats believe, state legislatures could have a pathway to overrule the popular vote in presidential elections by refusing to certify the results and instead sending their own slates of electors.
While that might seem like a doomsday scenario, 44 percent of Republicans in crucial swing-state legislatures used the power of their office to discredit or try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to a New York Times analysis. More like-minded G.O.P. candidates on the ballot could soon join them in office.
Republicans have complete control over legislatures in states that have a total of 307 electoral votes — 37 more than needed to win a presidential election. They hold majorities in several battleground states, meaning that if the Supreme Court endorsed the legal theory, a close presidential election could be overturned if just a few states assigned alternate slates of electors.
Democrats’ chances of bringing Republicans’ total below 270 are narrow: They would need to flip the Michigan Senate or the Arizona Senate, and then one chamber in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in 2024, in addition to defending the chambers the party currently controls.
Democrats and Republicans have set their sights on half a dozen states where state legislatures — or at least a single chamber — could flip in November. Democrats hope to wrest back one of the chambers in Michigan and the Arizona Senate, and flip the Minnesota Senate. Republicans aim to win back the Minnesota House of Representatives and take control of one chamber, or both, in the Maine, Colorado and Nevada legislatures. They are also targeting Oregon and Washington.
An avalanche of money has flowed into these races. The Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s campaign arm for state legislative races, has regularly set new fund-raising records, raising $71 million this cycle. The group’s Democratic counterpart has also broken fund-raising records, raising $45 million. Outside groups have spent heavily, too: The States Project, a Democratic super PAC, has pledged to invest nearly $60 million in five states.
The television airwaves, rarely a place where state legislative candidates go to war, have been flooded with advertising on the races. More than $100 million has been spent nationwide since July, an increase of $20 million over the same period in 2020, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.
Democrats are finding, however, that motivating voters on an issue as esoteric as the independent state legislature theory is not an easy task.
“Voters care a whole lot about a functioning democracy,” said Daniel Squadron, a Democratic former state senator from New York and a founder of the States Project. But, he said, the independent state legislature “threat still feels as though it’s on the horizon, even though it’s upon us.”
For some Republicans, the issue of the independent state legislature theory is far from the campaign trail, and far from their concerns.
“If it’s a decision by the Supreme Court, based on their legal opinion, I would defer to their legal expertise,” said Michael D. MacDonald, the Republican state senator running against Ms. Klinefelt. “I certainly respect the court’s opinion when they make it. I think it’s important that we do.”
Instead, Republicans are focusing on economic topics like inflation.
“The economy remains the issue that voters are most concerned about in their daily lives, and is the issue that will decide the battle for state legislatures in November,” said Andrew Romeo, the communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. The group’s internal polling shows that inflation and the cost of living are the No. 1 priority in every state surveyed.
The issues defining each election vary widely by district. Some of them, like roads, school funding and water, are hyperlocal — subjects that rarely drive a congressional or statewide race.
In the Detroit suburbs, Mr. MacDonald said he had heard the same concerns.
“When they have something to say, it’s never ‘Joe Biden’ or ‘Donald Trump,’ it’s, ‘Hey, you know, actually my road, it’s a little bumpy, what can you do?’” Mr. MacDonald said. He added, “Sometimes it could be as small as, ‘Can they get a garbage can from our garbage contractor?’”
His pitch to voters, in turn, focuses on money that Macomb County, which makes up a large part of the district, has received from the state budget since he was elected four years ago.
In Saginaw, a city that sits at the thumb joint of Michigan’s famous mitten shape, Kristen McDonald Rivet, a Democrat running in a highly competitive State Senate race, was clear about the issues driving her contest.
“Very few people talk to you about the state of the democracy,” she told volunteers and staff members on Wednesday at the Saginaw County Democratic Party’s headquarters as they prepared for an afternoon of knocking on doors. “What they’re going to talk to you about is how there really aren’t any high-wage jobs here. And there’s not. Seventy-five percent of the jobs in the region are low-wage. And that is a big issue in Saginaw Township. We have a lot of union workers.”
Ms. McDonald Rivet met one union worker, Steve, who declined to give his last name, as she canvassed a dense suburban neighborhood. They talked jobs and her background in education policy, and lamented the divisiveness of modern politics. He pledged to vote for her.
The race in the Saginaw area has attracted intense statewide and national attention. On Wednesday, there was barely an empty seat at a candidate forum attended by Ms. McDonald Rivet and her Republican opponent, Annette Glenn, a current state representative, and hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Ms. Glenn, who took office in 2019, pitched herself as a bipartisan presence in Lansing and spoke about education, the economy and crime.
“We want to make sure that not only my children, but your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have the same opportunities all throughout the district,” she said. “I also want to make sure that they can walk safely to school every single day.”
The debate was largely polite, though it grew contentious on the topic of the 2020 election. When the moderator asked Ms. Glenn if she believed President Biden had won, she deflected, spending her entire two minutes discussing “concerns” about the contest.
On Ms. McDonald Rivet’s turn to answer, she returned to Ms. Glenn, demanding an answer. Ms. Glenn paused, smiled and again dodged the question, though slightly more deftly.
“Every time you put gas in your car and you look at the gas prices, I can guarantee you that Joe Biden is the president,” she said.
While Republicans concentrate on the economy, Democrats are hoping that the backlash to the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade can help their party in state legislative races, too.
“Where are you on a woman’s right to chose?” a man named Mike asked Darrin Camilleri, a Democratic state representative running for State Senate in the southeastern suburbs of Detroit, as the lawmaker stood on his stoop.
“Well, I’m pro-choice,” Mr. Camilleri responded, “and very proudly …”
Mike cut him off. “Well, you’re getting my vote then,” he said. “Easy enough.”
As he walked down the driveway, Mr. Camilleri remarked: “That happens all the time. All the time.”
The national pressure of the showdown for the Michigan Senate has weighed on some of the candidates, many of whom did not expect the spotlight of national news coverage or the weight of the democracy issue to define their fall campaigns.
After walking an entire street, Ms. Klinefelt leaned against the hood of her car, resting a leather boot against the fender.
“Nobody’s going to care or remember who Veronica Klinefelt is 20 years from now,” she said. “I talk about that. But what they will remember is what happened during this time. If the small-d democracy changes dramatically, they’ll never forget that. And so if I fail, and because of that, we don’t have protection in the Legislature, that’s something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”