Off to the Races

What’s at Stake in State Legislative Races

A Democratic wave could flip several state House and Senate chambers in November.

The Old Arizona Capitol Building (left) and the State House of Representatives building (right) in Phoenix.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the American presidential elections, but very easy to underappreciate the significance of midterm elections, particularly this year’s.

While every midterm election has the same parameters—contests for every seat in the House, a third of the Senate, three-quarters of governorships, and just over four-fifths of state legislative seats—from top to bottom, this one is of outsized importance.

In Washington, most eyes are on the Republican majority in the House teetering on the edge, while the precariousness of the 51-49 advantage in the Senate is clear. But amid Washington’s inability and/or unwillingness to address so many important problems, power has shifted to the state capitols. Following huge GOP gains in governorships in the two Obama midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, Republicans now hold 33 governorships to just 16 for Democrats, with one (Alaska) in independent hands. Republicans have 26 governorships up this year to just nine for Democrats, plus Alaska. Given that open seats are usually harder for a party to retain, the fact that Republicans have 12 open governorships to Democrats’ four means the GOP’s exposure to possible losses is great.

Further down-ballot, the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Tim Storey points out that 6,066 state legislative seats are up for regular elections this year—82 percent of all seats—with 46 states having scheduled legislative elections, and 87 out of 99 state legislative chambers. Storey observes that, with Democrats having lost ground in three out of the last four election cycles, they are at rock bottom. Currently Republicans control both the state House and Senate chambers in 25 states compared to just seven states with both chambers under Democratic rule, while 17 more are split. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral Senate.)

Given those numbers and the challenging political environment for Republicans this year, the party has only one direction to go in terms of state legislative seats—down, potentially losing their majorities in 12 to 14 state legislative chambers. Since the 2016 election, 40 previously Republican state legislative seats have already been captured by Democrats, compared to just four seats that have switched from Democrats to the GOP, a possible foreshadowing of November.

Storey also points out that the party holding the White House has lost state legislative seats in 27 out of the last 29 midterm elections, and the losses averaged 375 seats nationwide. In 2006, President George W. Bush’s second midterm, Democrats gained 10 legislative chambers (two of those had been tied before) while the GOP flipped just two. In 2010, 23 chambers shifted from Democrat to Republican and another switched from Democratic-held to tied; no chambers flipped the other direction from Republican to Democrat. In 2014, Obama’s second midterm, 11 chambers switched from Democrat to Republican; none went in the opposite direction.

Among Republican-held state legislative chambers this year, the state Senates in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Wisconsin are considered toss-ups while the Connecticut Senate, currently tied, is expected to go Democratic in November. The Arizona House and New Hampshire Senate are battlegrounds, but the GOP is given the edge at this point to retain control. Democrats have majorities that are at least theoretically endangered in the Maine House as well as the state Senates in Nevada and Washington state. In two interesting twists, the New York state Senate technically has a Democratic majority but is controlled by a GOP-led coalition, while the Alaskan House has a Republican majority but has a Democratic-led coalition in control.

Storey notes that the list of highly vulnerable Republican-controlled chambers seems shorter than one might expect, given midterm-election patterns. Polling, and the number of seats captured by Democrats since November 2016, show a difficult environment for Republicans. But Democrats start off in a deep hole, in part because of Republican maps drawn in the 2011 redistricting, as well as population sorting—with Democratic voters naturally concentrated in urban areas and GOP voters more efficiently allocated around the country and within most states. Should the blue tidal wave be as big as Democrats pray and Republicans fear, we could see GOP-controlled state House chambers in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania endangered as well as state Senates in Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina. (Redistricting litigation in North Carolina and Wisconsin could change some district boundaries between now and November.)

Whether one is focused on state-level policy or on who will draw the 2021 congressional and state legislative boundaries, these below-the-radar state legislative elections are hugely important. If Democrats have as big an election as they could, we will see how enthusiastic they are about redistricting reforms next year.

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