November Likely to Lessen GOP's Advantage in Legislatures

According to our state-by-state projections, Democrats have their best chance since 2010 to take back control of some chambers.
by | October 12, 2016
The Colorado State Capitol, where the House of Representatives convenes.
Inside the Colorado State Capitol. (David Kidd)

In the battle for control of the 50 state legislatures, the shifting tides in the presidential race don’t appear to be having much of an impact.

Instead, structural factors -- like the fact that the Democrats control a record low number of legislative chambers and the fact that more Democratic-leaning voters tend to go to the polls in presidential election years -- are having a bigger effect.

The result, if our analysis is correct, should be a continued -- but narrower -- lead for Republicans in state legislatures.

Currently, the GOP controls 68 chambers to the Democrats' 30. Just a few years ago, it was Democrats that held a 62-to-36 advantage. But the 2010 elections changed that. Now, Republicans hold both the Senate and House in 30 states, Democrats hold both in 12 states, and the chambers are split in seven.

Democrats were hoping that Trump’s candidacy would harm Republicans up and down the ballot. We won’t rule out that possibility; nothing that happens this election year surprises us anymore. But Trump’s unique characteristics as a candidate emphasize differences between himself and other Republicans, making it less likely that GOP voters will punish state legislators for sharing a party with Trump. If anything, Republicans who don’t vote for Trump may actively support downballot Republicans to reinforce their partisan identification.

In the handicapping below -- our first since May -- we haven’t moved a single chamber either into or out of our “competitive” category, which consists of chambers rated as either tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. We see 27 chambers as competitive -- 18 currently held by Republicans and nine held by Democrats.

Of the 18 chambers held by Republicans, six are rated as tossups, 11 as lean Republican and one as lean Democratic. Of the nine chambers held by Democrats, two are rated as tossups and seven as lean Democratic.

This is a relatively large number of chambers in play, and it offers Democrats the most chances they've had to take back some control since 2010. Without a one-sided wave, Democrats could regain control of a half-dozen chambers this cycle.

The chambers where they're most likely to regain control are the Nevada Assembly -- which is now rated lean Democratic -- and the Colorado Senate, the Maine Senate, the Nevada Senate, the New Hampshire Senate, the New Mexico House and the New York Senate -- which are all tossups.

By contrast, the Republicans have the best chance of taking control of the following Democratic chambers in November: the Connecticut Senate and the Kentucky House, which are both tossups.

The Republican chambers rated lean Republican are the Arizona Senate and House, the Michigan House, the Minnesota House, the New Hampshire House, the North Carolina Senate and House, the Washington state Senate, the West Virginia Senate, and the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly.

The Democratic chambers rated lean Democratic are the Colorado House, the Connecticut House, the Iowa Senate, the Maine House, the Minnesota Senate, the New Mexico Senate and the Washington state House.

Though no competitive contests have changed since May, we did update the ratings of three chambers -- the Alaska Senate and the Nevada Assembly in the Democrats’ favor and the Kentucky House in the Republicans' favor.

As always, our assessments are based on interviews with dozens of state and national political sources.

Chambers are rated on the following scale: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.  The chambers labeled "lean" and "tossup" are considered competitive. The chambers labeled "likely" aren't expected to change party control, but it's possible that the minority party could take a small bite out of the majority's lead.

The current partisan breakdown in each chamber comes from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seats that are vacant or held by third-party politicians are not included in the totals.

Here's our state-by-state rundown:

ALABAMA

Senate: 26-8 R

House: 72-32 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

ALASKA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 14-6 R (Shift from Safe R)

House: Projected Likely R; Current 23-16 R

A few upsets for incumbents in the August primary have increased the likelihood of modest Democratic gains in the Senate, so we’re changing the rating for that chamber from safe Republican to likely Republican. In the House, the Republicans stand to lose a few seats. However, Republicans will be able to rely on members of rural Democrats known as the "bush caucus." We’re keeping the House at likely Republican.

ARIZONA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 18-12 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 36-24 R

Arizona, usually a red state, continues to look iffy for Republicans this year. Latinos seem energized not only to oppose Donald Trump but also, in populous Maricopa County, to vote against controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is seeking re-election. For now, the Republican margins in both chambers look a little wide to move the ratings to tossup, but both chambers will be competitive.

ARKANSAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 24-11 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 64-36 R

The GOP majority, first achieved in 2012, looks solid. Neither party considers this to be on their watch list, and Trump is likelier to be a plus than a minus here for Republicans.

CALIFORNIA

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 26-14 D

Assembly: Projected Safe D; Current 52-28 D

Democratic control in California remains solid. Instead, the question is whether or not the Democrats can secure a two-thirds supermajority. The Assembly looks like a better prospect for achieving supermajority status; several GOP Assembly incumbents fared poorly in the state’s top-two primary system, coming in behind two Democratic challengers. Given Trump's unpopularity in the state, Assembly Democrats stand to pick up three to four seats. Meanwhile, the Senate seems to be on track to remain static. Only five of the 20 seats up this year are held by the GOP, and three of those are safe.

COLORADO

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-17 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 34-31 D

In this presidential battleground state, both parties are targeting both chambers -- and they're both in play. The Democrats’ prospects look a little better than they did in our last handicapping but not enough to change the ratings.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 21-15 D

House: Projected Lean D; Current 87-64 D

Connecticut was the sleeper pick of our May analysis, but the Democrats have bounced back a bit. Republicans are playing defense in places they thought were safe, and Democrats seem to be doing better at protecting their open seats. In addition, Trump hasn’t caught fire in the state. That said, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is beset by economic and fiscal challenges and remains broadly unpopular. While he’s not on the ballot this year, voters could choose to punish Democratic legislators instead. On balance, there’s been a shift toward the Democrats, but it isn’t big enough to change our ratings in either chamber.

DELAWARE

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 12-9 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 25-16 D

In this blue state, Democrats should have little trouble holding on to their majorities in a presidential election year.

FLORIDA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 26-14 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 81-39 R

The Democrats, already benefiting from a mid-decade redistricting of the state Senate and an energized Latino electorate, are still looking at single-digit gains, but GOP margins are large enough that they should retain control after Election Day.

GEORGIA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 39-17 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 118-61 R

Despite continued Democratic hopes of stealing Georgia from the GOP fold on the presidential level, any Democratic gains in the legislature are likely to be modest. Both chambers stay at safe Republican.

HAWAII

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 24-1 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 44-7 D

Hawaii's Democratic majorities are still ridiculously large and should stay that way.

IDAHO

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-7 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 56-14 R

Despite some internal GOP divisions, the Democrats shouldn't be much of a factor for the foreseeable future.

ILLINOIS

Senate: Projected Likely D; Current 39-20 D

House: Projected Likely D; Current 71-47 D

Illinois continues to be wracked by a painful budgetary face-off between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled legislature. The state is on track to hold its most expensive legislative election year ever because Rauner has pumped millions into legislative races. But at the end of the day, not many seats are expected to change hands due to a favorable legislative district map for the Democratic majority and Illinois’ normal, Democratic-leaning dynamics of a presidential election year.

INDIANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 40-10 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-29 R

Trump is ahead in the state, but a number of downballot races are competitive, and before he became Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence faced a tough re-election bid. This suggests that Democrats could gain some seats. However, the GOP margins are large enough to provide a strong cushion.

IOWA

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 26-23-1 D

House: Projected Likely R; Current 57-43 R

Republicans feel better about their chances in the Senate than they did a few months ago, partly due to Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing in polls of the state. However, one “never-Trump” Republican senator, David Johnson, has left the party, complicating the GOP’s task of taking control. And since 2000, the Democrats have performed well in presidential cycles. Meanwhile, the GOP retains an edge in the House. All told, the most likely outcome remains a continued legislative split -- a Democratic Senate and a Republican House.

KANSAS

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 32-8 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 97-28 R

GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's hard-right policies remain unpopular among many moderates in the state. The August primaries proved that when moderate Republicans earned a stronger-than-anticipated set of victories. This, combined with possible Democratic wins in general election races, could set up moderate majorities in one both chambers -- even if the GOP retains relatively wide margins in both.

KENTUCKY

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-11 R

House: Projected Tossup; Current 53-47 D (Shift from Lean D)

Both Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Trump are popular in the state, putting increased pressure on the Democrats’ narrow edge in the House -- the last Democratic-held chamber in the South and the last such chamber in a state carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. All four incumbent House Democratic leaders have races that will keep them tied down and less able to raise money for threatened colleagues. So we’re shifting it from lean Democratic to tossup. Meanwhile, the Senate remains solidly in GOP control.

LOUISIANA

Senate: 25-14 R

House: 60-42 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

MAINE

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 20-15 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 79-69 D

Both chambers of Maine's split legislature remain in play, with Democrats holding an edge in the House and a chance to flip the GOP-held Senate. Democrats are eager to leverage unhappiness with GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who had a bad August, including impeachment talk. On the other hand, Trump looks poised to take one of Maine’s district-by-district electoral votes, suggesting reason for GOP optimism at least in some regions of the state. We’ll keep the ratings as they were, a tossup Senate and a lean Democratic House.

MARYLAND

Senate: 33-14 D

House: 90-51 D

Neither chamber is contested this year.

MASSACHUSETTS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 34-6 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 126-34 D

Even if Republicans gain some seats -- which seems unlikely -- the Democrats’ massive margins won't come close to crumbling in a single cycle.

MICHIGAN

Senate: No Races; Current 27-11 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 63-46 R

The GOP has a decent-sized majority in the House -- the only chamber up this year -- but Democrats are also hoping for a boost from the unpopularity of GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and Clinton’s lead over Trump. The question is whether specific blue-collar districts could warm to Trump. For now, we’re keeping the chamber at lean Republican.

MINNESOTA

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 39-28 D

House: Projected Lean R; Current 73-61 R

Both chambers remain in play, with a modest lean toward the Democrats in the Senate and toward the Republicans in the House. It’s quite possible that margins in both chambers will tighten, with suburban Republicans defecting to Democrats and rural Democrats defecting to a Trump-led GOP. A change in control in either chamber is possible. But for now, the most likely outcome is a continued Democratic Senate and a continued Republican House.

MISSISSIPPI

Senate: 32-20 R

House: 72-47 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

MISSOURI

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 24-8 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 114-45 R

Post-2010 redistricting has made it difficult for Missouri Democrats to gain ground in recent cycles, but marginal Democratic gains are possible this year, especially given strong campaigns by Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. senator. Still, the GOP edge in both chambers is large. In fact, there’s a better than ever chance that the GOP keeps its veto-proof status, which could come in hand if the Democrats retain the governor’s mansion.

MONTANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 29-21 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 59-41 R

Energy, infrastructure and power plant emission rules are key issues here, making it hard for Democrats to separate themselves from the national party. The GOP should hold onto to its majority in the House, perhaps with small Democratic gains, and may expand their edge in the Senate.

NEBRASKA

Senate: Unicameral/Nonpartisan

Nebraska's unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan; Governing doesn't handicap it.

NEVADA

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 11-10 R

Assembly: Projected Lean D; Current 24-17 R (Shift from Tossup)

Trump fared unexpectedly well in polling in Nevada during most of 2016, but Clinton has gained in recent weeks. And observers expect a strong turnout by Latinos in the state, leaving Democrats optimistic that they can reverse the Republican gains of 2014. We’re shifting the Assembly from tossup to lean Democratic.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 14-10 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 239-160 R

The GOP succeeded in drawing favorable district lines after the 2010 Census, but the Senate is close enough that Democrats have a decent shot at taking control, or at least getting to a 12-12 split. Flipping the state's massive 400-seat state House depends on a Democratic wave emerging in the state, which is possible but far from a certainty.

NEW JERSEY

Senate: 24-16 D

Assembly: 52-28 D

Neither chamber is contested this year.

NEW MEXICO

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 24-18 D

House: Projected Tossup; Current 37-33 R

In the Republican wave year of 2014, the GOP seized control of the New Mexico House, which had been in the hands of Democrats since 1953. The GOP needs to protect a lot of close seats in the House, and in a presidential election year, the Democrats should have an edge. On the other hand, a special legislative session is addressing some hot-button issues, such as crime, that are favorable to Republicans. The GOP has also found some top-tier Hispanic candidates. A wild card is whether relative support for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the libertarian presidential candidate, will have any impact downballot.

NEW YORK

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 32-31 D (but Republican control)

Assembly: Projected Safe D; Current 105-42 D

For yet another cycle, New York's Senate is fluid and the House is solid for Democrats. In the Senate, a coalition of Republicans and maverick Democrats still run the show. Given the huge Clinton lead in this blue state, the GOP is working uphill. The party is unlikely to get a clear majority in the Senate, so coalition control is likely to persist.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 34-16 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 74-45 R

North Carolina has become an even bigger national battleground since our previous analysis. It’s turned into a must-win state for Trump and a key target for Clinton. Despite favorable legislative lines, Republicans are fretting about GOP-held districts in the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs, given the unpopularity of Trump and the HB2 “bathroom bill.” The GOP’s substantial margins are the only reason we’re keeping these chambers at lean Republican. Of the two, House Republicans seem likelier to lose their veto-proof majority than Senate Republicans.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 32-15 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 70-23 R

In solidly Republican North Dakota, both chambers are safe.

OHIO

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 23-10 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 65-34 R

Trump has polled consistently well in this state, energizing blue-collar voters. This makes it even harder for Democrats, who already faced an uphill climb in the state. Fewer than 10 of the 99 House seats have been considered competitive in each of the last two cycles. There may be a few Democratic wins on the House side due to the higher number of term-limited incumbents. But GOP control is not in serious danger in either chamber.

OKLAHOMA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 39-9 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-30 R

The GOP in solidly Republican Oklahoma will have no problem maintaining supermajorities in both chambers.

OREGON

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 18-12 D

House: Projected Likely D; Current 35-25 D

Only two seats in the Oregon Senate are plausibly competitive this year, both of them long held by Democrats. In the House, the Republicans are making a run at three Democratic-held open seats in the eastern and western suburbs of Portland, plus another Democratic-held open seat extending to the state capital of Salem. But even if the GOP were to sweep and hold their own vulnerable seats -- an unlikely outcome in a higher-turnout presidential year in this blue state -- it would still fall short of what’s needed to take control.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 30-19 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 119-84 R

Despite the state's overall purple-to-blue lean, Pennsylvania Republicans enjoy disproportionately large margins in both chambers thanks to redistricting. The Republicans could pick up a few House seats and a Senate seat in the southwestern corner of the state, where Trump is strong. That could offset expected losses in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Trump is deeply unpopular.  All in all, none of this is likely to be enough to flip either chamber this cycle.

RHODE ISLAND

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 32-5 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 63-11 D

Rhode Island will continue to have one of the most lopsided legislatures in the nation.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 77-46 R

Both chambers are solidly Republican and will stay that way.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-8 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 58-12 R

In solidly Republican South Dakota, the Democrats aren't much of a factor.

TENNESSEE

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-5 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 73-26 R

The GOP should continue to have a lock on the Tennessee Legislature.

TEXAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 20-11 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 98-51 R

Any inroads Democrats can make in Texas this year due to an energized Latino electorate probably won't be enough to shift GOP margins significantly. The Senate isn’t expected to move an inch. In the House, a worst-case scenario for Republicans would be to drop 10 seats. Smaller losses are more likely.

UTAH

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 24-5 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 63-12 R

Even if Utah is more sour on Trump than any other red state, there's no reason to believe that antipathy will trickle down to legislative candidates. There aren’t even many competitive seats. The GOP's strong margins are rock-solid.

VERMONT

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 21-9 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 85-53 D

The presidential cycle should help keep Vermont's legislature strongly Democratic. But if Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott wins the governorship, he could have modest coattails. More important for the GOP is to keep the number of House seats above 51 -- the number of votes to sustain a veto. Scott, if he wins, will need that leverage in negotiations with lawmakers, especially over budget and tax issues.

VIRGINIA

Senate: 21-18 R

House: 66-34 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

WASHINGTON STATE

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 25-24 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 50-48 D

Though Washington state is generally blue, its legislative chambers are narrowly divided, with the Democrats controlling the House and the GOP controlling the Senate. The Senate currently has 25 Republicans and 24 Democrats -- including one Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans. Chamber control is expected to come down to races involving one Democratic and one Republican incumbent in the King County suburbs plus a Republican-held open seat that includes Vancouver. A Democratic open seat in King and Snohomish counties may be competitive as well. On balance, we’re keeping the chamber at lean Republican. In the House, the Democrats hold a narrow advantage -- their smallest since 2002 -- and Republicans are hopeful for a takeover. The GOP has a leg up in the House because in one district, no Democrat finished in the top two in the primary for one seat, guaranteeing the GOP at least one flipped seat. The GOP has some other opportunities in other districts, but the party is also trying to defend a handful of open seats. Given that this is a presidential election cycle, we'll call this lean Democratic, but barely.

WEST VIRGINIA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 18-16 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 64-36 R

With Trump set to score a big victory in West Virginia, we expect the chambers to remain in Republican hands after a GOP takeover in 2014. But Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice is running strongly, and that could help Democrats on the margins. We’ll keep the Senate at lean Republican and the House as likely Republican.

WISCONSIN

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 19-14 R

Assembly: Projected Lean R; Current 63-36 R

Wisconsin has continued to be a competitive, if Democratic-leaning, state on the presidential level, which suggests that the Democrats may gain some seats -- but not enough to flip the two chambers.

WYOMING

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-4 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 51-9 R

The Wyoming Legislature is lopsidedly Republican and will stay that way.