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Are US state courts the new battleground?

Three hands putting votes into ballot boxes with different colors beside the "Midterm Matters" tagline
Ari Winkleman

With Midterm Matters, we are counting down to the US midterm elections on Nov. 8 by separating the signal from the noise on election-related news.

The perception that the US Supreme Court is a partisan institution has increased in recent years. Just 25% of Americans now say that they have confidence in the court, down from an average of 47% between 1973 and 2006, according to Gallup. Confidence in the court has even waned among Republicans, with less than 40% of GOP voters now expressing confidence in the court, compared to 53% in 2020.

Views on court bias and whether it plays an outsized role in politics reached fever-pitch for many this summer with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a move disapproved by 57% of Americans.

Noise: The role of the Supreme Court in US political life has been a big focus leading up to midterm elections, with many Democrats campaigning against the court itself, including President Joe Biden, who recently said, “The Supreme Court and the MAGA Republicans don’t have a clue about the power of women in this country. And they’re soon to find out.”

Signal: The US Supreme Court plays a pivotal role in the system of governance in America, but many of today’s major political battles are taking place at the state level. Consider that the US Supreme Court recently passed on several hot-button issues – including abortion, gun laws, and voting rights – to be arbitrated by the states. Given the court’s conservative bent, this judicial approach will likely persevere for years to come.

While Republicans seem to have understood this dynamic for some time, Democrats have caught up with the trend in recent years. In the 2019-2020 election cycle, a collective $97 million was spent on state court races nationwide. This cycle, parties are investing heavily in partisan judicial races in Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina.

Looking ahead: With an increased number of election deniers on Republican ballots, debates over the nature of American democracy itself will gain steam over the next few years – and those battles will be waged in state courts. Prepare to see a lot more money enter state judicial races.

Biden warns American democracy is at risk

President Joe Biden took to the airwaves Wednesday night to appeal to American voters ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. He blamed former President Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election being stolen and called out the violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul.

“We must with one overwhelming unified voice speak as a country and say there’s no place for voter intimidation or political violence in America,” Biden said.

Since 2020, there have been numerous legal challenges and recounts that tested the election results. “There’s no election in our history that we can be more certain of its results. Every legal challenge that could have been brought was brought. Every recount that could have been undertaken was undertaken. Every recount confirmed the results,” Biden said.

But he added that Republicans are threatening the sanctity of this year’s results through voter intimidation and denialism, noting how many GOP candidates are refusing to say whether they’ll accept the results if they lose. He asked Americans to help preserve democracy by voting.

“We’ll have our differences,” Biden said. “But there’s something else at stake, democracy itself.”

In response to the speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that the president was “desperate to change the subject from inflation, crime, and open borders.”

“Now he’s claiming that democracy only works if his party wins. … Americans aren’t buying it,” McConnell added.

We'll find out exactly what Americans think after next Tuesday.


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