Which Party Runs State Government?

With a pair of new governors coming to power and new state legislators across the country taking office, now seems like a good time to ...
by | January 9, 2009

With a pair of new governors coming to power and new state legislators across the country taking office, now seems like a good time to ask which party controls state government.

The answer: The Democrats.

Ok, that was too easy. A better question: Coming off of their victories in 2006 and 2008, to what extent do Democrats control state government?

Twenty-nine of the nation's fifty governors (or 58%) are Democrats. Of the 7,382 state legislators, 4,083 (or 55.3%) are Democrats and 3,218 (or 43.6%) are Republicans. The rest are vacant seats, held by third-party representatives, are members of the nominally non-partisan Nebraska legislature or were still undecided when the National Conference of State Legislatures compiled these numbers.

The raw numbers are a superficial way to look at who is in control of state government, however. Arnold Schwarzenegger governs 69 times as many people as Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal. No one outside of Wyoming would view the Wyoming governorship as equally important to the California governorship.

Likewise, a California state senator has, on average, 919,000 constituents. A New Hampshire state representative has fewer than 3,300. That 279-to-1 discrepancy is both because California has more population than New Hampshire and because the New Hampshire House (400 members) is a much bigger body than the California Senate (40 members).

The obvious solution is to weight different officeholders based on the population they represent -- make Schwarzenegger count 69 times as much as Freudenthal and California senators count 279 times as much as New Hampshire state representatives. When you do that, Democrats end up with 54.7% of state government and Republicans 44.8%, with the remaining .5% split between independents, vacant seats and Nebraskans. Democrats have a clear, though not overwhelming, edge in state government.

I came to those figures by assuming that the executive and legislative branches really are equal: Governors counted for 50% and legislatures counted for 50%. Within the legislatures category, I counted senates and houses of representatives each as half.

How impressive is 54.7%? Well, Barack Obama took 52.9% of the vote in a presidential election that, by any reasonable standard, would not be considered close.

On the other hand, Democrats hold 59% of the seats in the U.S. House and anywhere between 55% and 59% of the seats in U.S. Senate, depending on how you count Bernie Sanders, Joe Lieberman, Al Franken and Roland Burris. (I didn't weight Congress based on population because a senator from California and a senator from Wyoming are, more or less, equally powerful.)

All of that being said, this method of determining the extent of the Democratic edge is itself a tad unsatisfying. Democrats, for example, gained two seats in the Hawaii Senate in November, increasing their majority from 21-4 to 23-2. Democrats won't really have any additional power in the Hawaii Senate, though, because, when you're ahead 21-4, there's not really any more power to gain. They could do whatever they wanted to do before and they'll be able to do whatever they want now.

Democrats also gained two seats in the Nevada Senate, but the results will be dramatic. Republicans had an 11-10 edge. Now Democrats boast a 12-9 advantage, which means the Democrats will control the committees and agenda.

The implication here is that the existence of a majority matters a lot more than its size. And, you can adjust the numbers to reflect that idea.

By my count, Democrats currently control 59 legislative chambers and Republicans control 37. Two chambers, the Alaska Senate and Montana House, are tied. I'm not counting the Louisiana House for either party, since it has a Democratic majority, but a Republican speaker. I am counting the unicameral Nebraska legislature for the Republicans, since, despite being nominally non-partisan, the G.O.P. does have the edge (I'm just not sure of the exact numbers).

So, I crunched new totals using the same system as before, except with an all-or-nothing formula (either your party has control of a legislative chamber or it doesn't). Doing that, Democrats control 58.1% of state government, while Republicans control 41.4%. In politics, 58% is a landslide.

However (and, I promise, this is my last however), holding a single legislative chamber or a single governorship in isolation doesn't really give your party very much control of anything. In Virginia, Democrats have the governorship and the state senate. Under the formula I just used, that would give them 75% of state government (the entire executive branch and half the legislative branch).

Virginia Democrats can't do anything, though, unless the Republicans who control the House of Delegates agree to it. Sure, the governor has authority over state agencies and appointment powers, but, to a large extent, Democrats aren't in control. Laws aren't approved without bipartisan agreement. Virginia Republicans have a habit of striking hard bargains.

So, if what you really want to know is whether Democrats will be able to implement a Democratic agenda or Republicans will be able to implement a Republican agenda, the place to look is at the states where one party controls the entirety of state government.

Using that standard, Democrats once again possess a substantial edge. Democrats have complete control of 17 states that have 31.8% of U.S. residents. Republicans only have complete control in 9 states with 21.2% of Americans.

That leaves a whopping 24 states with close to half the U.S. population where legislation only passes with bipartisan agreement. Therefore, in some sense, my initial statement was wrong. You can make the case that neither major party truly controls U.S. state government.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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