Handicapping the 2016 State Legislative Races

Near rock bottom in state chambers, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on a presidential year.
by | May 19, 2016
Inside the Iowa state Capitol (David Kidd)

If you look at a map of the United States, divided by state legislative districts, you'll see a very red America with a few splotches of blue. Since Republicans flipped nine Democratic-held chambers in 2014, they've been firmly in control of a majority of state legislatures. While the Republican lead won't disappear in 2016, Democrats can be confident they'll regain a bit of ground this November.

Currently, the GOP controls 68 chambers to the Democrats' 30. That's a historically high level for Republicans. As recently as the run-up to the 2010 election, Democrats held a 62-to-36 advantage. Now, Republicans hold both the Senate and House in 30 states, Democrats hold both in 12 states, and the chambers are split in seven.

This means the GOP will have to defend more chambers this fall, which is just one factor that favors Democrats this cycle. Another is that it's a presidential year, so turnout will be higher than in midterm elections, a pattern that tends to benefit Democrats.

But potentially the biggest factor helping Democrats in state legislative elections will be Donald Trump, a uniquely divisive candidate. His presence atop the ballot worries many Republicans who track state legislatures.

It's still a long way to November, and recent polls showing a closer race between Trump and Hillary Clinton is an important reminder that things could change. But at least for now, Trump's expected nomination is increasing the number of chambers we've rated as "in play."

In our handicapping below -- the first of the 2016 cycle -- we find 27 chambers in play, of which 18 are currently held by the GOP and nine are held by the Democrats. Of the 18 GOP-held chambers, 11 lean Republican and seven are tossups. Of the nine Democratic-held chambers, eight are lean Democratic, with only one tossup.

That's a relatively large number of chambers in play, and it's also the best ratio of Democratic vulnerable chambers to Republican vulnerable chambers in several cycles. Democrats could gain a half-dozen chambers back this cycle, and if the backlash to Trump turns out to be strong, Democratic gains could be even bigger.

One complication is that even if Trump loses by a large margin nationally, he could actually boost Republican candidates running in state legislative districts that have a conservative Democratic lean, particularly blue-collar areas in the Midwest and Northeast.

Either way, a lot depends on who ultimately wins the presidency. That person, said Tim Storey, a longtime elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, has a good shot at getting a boost in legislative elections. In the 29 elections since 1900, the party winning the White House has gained seats in 21 of them. The average gain during a presidential year is 192 seats nationally. "The top of the ticket really matters," Storey said.

The Republican-held chambers that are currently rated as tossups are the Colorado Senate, the Maine Senate, the Nevada Senate and Assembly, the New Hampshire Senate, the New Mexico House and the New York Senate.

The Republican chambers that are 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 one Democratic-held chamber currently rated a tossup is the Connecticut Senate.

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

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 categories labeled "lean" and "tossup" are considered competitive or in play. Chambers in either of the "likely" categories are not expected to change party control on Election Day, but it's possible that the minority party could net a few seats and nibble into 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: 72-33 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

ALASKA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 14-6 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 23-16 R

A Republican-friendly redistricting in 2012 makes it unlikely that Democrats will see much success in this heavily Republican state. Still, the state is struggling fiscally due to low-energy prices, which could offer a few openings for Democrats.

ARIZONA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 18-12 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 36-24 R

Seemingly every cycle, Arizona is potentially competitive for Democrats, due to its sizable Latino electorate. Can having Donald Trump atop the Republican ballot this year finally get Democrats over the hump? Possibly. U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Republican, is in a race for his political life, and Arizona Republicans have been embroiled for years in intra-party conflicts between Establishment and Tea Party factions. Arizona Republicans start with the edge, but 2016 could be an unusually turbulent year.

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 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

California remains as strong as ever for the Democrats, and with Latinos potentially coming out in droves to vote against Trump, they should not have to worry about losing control in 2016.

COLORADO

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-17 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 34-31 D

In purple Colorado, the Democrats narrowly lost control of the Senate in 2014, while they narrowly kept the House. Both parties are targeting both chambers again this year, and they're both in play. The chance to vote against Trump could energize Colorado's significant Latino population, suggesting that the Democrats are probably in a better position here than the GOP. But for the moment, we'll be cautious, calling House Democrats a slight favorite to retain control and the Senate too close to call.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 21-15 D

House: Projected Lean D; Current 86-64 D

Connecticut is our sleeper pick of the cycle. The Democrats have had large legislative margins for years, but those margins have narrowed bit by bit. In addition, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, beset by economic and fiscal challenges, is broadly unpopular. In the Senate, one seat is already poised to go Republican, and at least six other seats -- all held by Democrats -- are up for grabs. Even Democrats in the state acknowledge that the chamber is no better than a tossup for their party. The Democrats have more breathing room in the House, and the GOP will have to defend about a dozen open seats, possibly straining their resources. But a 12-seat loss for Democrats is not out of the question, and that would be enough to flip control to the GOP.

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 GOP has held a large lead in both Florida chambers for years, and at the end of the day, they should stay in control. But Democrats have at least a possibility of gaining ground, thanks to a mid-decade redistricting of the state Senate that created more competitive districts and the possibility of high Latino turnout due to Trump's candidacy. Florida Democrats could well make single-digit gains, but we're reluctant at this point to move it beyond likely Republican.

GEORGIA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 39-17 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 118-61 R

While Georgia is considered a potentially promising state for Democrats on the presidential level, we're not yet convinced it will extend to that legislative level, where GOP margins seem far too wide to overcome. If we see signs of movement, we'll adjust our rating, but for now, we're keeping both Georgia chambers 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 has been wracked by a painful budgetary face-off between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled legislature. Neither branch has come off well, but legislators are the ones on the ballot, so losing some seats is a possibility for Democrats. Rauner is expected to provide unprecedented funding for Republican legislative candidates, but the Democrats will benefit from a favorable legislative district map drawn in 2011. Because this is a presidential year in a blue state, continued Democratic control looks likely.

INDIANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 40-10 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-29 R

Republican Gov. Mike Pence faces a tough re-election bid this year, and an underwhelming performance could shave the otherwise strong GOP legislative majorities. Control, however, is highly unlikely to switch.

IOWA

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 26-24 D

House: Projected Likely R; Current 57-43 R

Observers see better-than-even odds of 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 are unpopular among many moderates in the state, to say nothing of Democrats. With his approval ratings hovering around 20 percent, Democrats hope to capitalize. But while Democrats may make some inroads, the bigger story may be moderates gaining ground back within the GOP, potentially moderating the ideology of the chambers without changing the party that controls it.

KENTUCKY

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-11 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 53-47 D

Despite a generation-long shift to the GOP throughout the South and Republican Matt Bevin seizing a Democratic-held gubernatorial open seat in 2015, the Kentucky House remains in Democratic hands. The House is still going to be competitive in 2016, but we'll give the Democrats a slight edge for now. The Senate is solidly in GOP hands.

LOUISIANA

Senate: 25-14 R

House: 61-42 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-control legislature are going to be in play this fall, with Democrats having an edge in the House and a chance to flip the GOP-held Senate. Complicating projections in this presidential year is the possibility that Trump could pull some economically struggling blue-collar legislative districts to the GOP even if he doesn't win the state as a whole.

MARYLAND

Senate: 33-14 D

House: 90-51 D

Neither chamber is contested this year.

MASSACHUSETTS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 33-5 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 125-34 D

Republican Charlie Baker won the governorship in 2014, and he remains popular. As in Maine, Trump could pull some districts to the GOP, but Democrats have massive margins that 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 the big wild card is whether GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's role in the Flint water crisis is going to have a negative down-ballot effect for Republicans. Being cautious, we're keeping this competitive, but leaning Republican.

MINNESOTA

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 39-28 D

House: Projected Lean R; Current 73-61 R

Both chambers are in play, with a modest lean toward the Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House. The House could shift to tossup if the Trump effect hits hard. But since the GOP has already lost a lot of their suburban swing seats -- where Trump could be most damaging to the party's down-ballot prospects -- they don't have a whole lot of exposure in the House. In the Senate, rural Democratic retirements and a split between metro-area environmentalists and rural labor-union members and farmers makes the chamber competitive.

MISSISSIPPI

Senate: 32-20 R

House: 74-48 R

Neither chamber is contested this year.

MISSOURI

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 24-8 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 116-45 R

Missouri is edging towards competitive-state status thanks to the presidential campaign and several statewide races, including the governorship. This suggests that marginal Democratic gains are possible. But the GOP edge in both chambers is large and seems likely to hold regardless of what happens elsewhere on the ballot.

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 Tossup; Current 25-17 R

The 2014 midterm election cycle was a total wipeout for Nevada Democrats. Could 2016 bring redemption? Possibly. Latinos are a force in the state, and the prospect of a Trump presidency will likely boost their turnout. The Senate, as usual, has a razor-thin majority and will be fiercely contested. The margin in the Assembly is wider, but it's close enough to be vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. For now we'll be cautious and rate both chambers as tossups, but if the winds continue to blow in the Democrats' direction, that could shift.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 14-19 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 239-160 R

The GOP did a good job drawing district lines after the 2010 Census, but the Senate is close enough that Democrats have a decent shot at taking the Senate or at least getting to a 12-12 split. Flipping the state's massive 400-seat state House depends on a Democratic wave in the state, which is possible but less likely.

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. But in a presidential year in a period when heavily Latino New Mexico has become more strongly Democratic, that reign could be short-lived.

NEW YORK

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

Assembly: Projected Safe D; Current 106-42 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. While Democrats have high hopes of making inroads, predicting what will happen in this kind of coalition-led chamber is folly.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 34-16 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 74-45 R

North Carolina, already a contentious state politically due to the GOP's aggressively conservative agenda, has only become more controversial in the wake of the state's polarizing transgender bathroom bill. The GOP's favorable district lines and decent margins offer enough protection that we're not projecting a flip to the Democrats at this point. But losses are a real possibility, and if a nascent Democratic wave gathers energy, all bets are off. Public and internal polling shows some softness for incumbent Republicans, particularly in suburban districts. And losing their veto-proof majorities -- which would be significant if Democrat Roy Cooper wins the governor's mansion -- is a possibility.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 32-15 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-23 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

The outlook for the Democrats in this key swing state is far better than 2014, a nonpresidential year when the party had a dud as a gubernatorial nominee. Still, the GOP margins are sizable. For now, modest Democratic gains are possible, but it's not looking like there will be enough seats in play to shift control this cycle.

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

Although half the seats in the Oregon Senate are up this year, many of the Democratic districts are from Portland and other safe areas. As for the House, Republicans are aiming for a handful of seats in the eastern and western suburbs in an attempt to reduce the Democratic majority. But significant gains for the GOP will be hard in a presidential year.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 30-19 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 119-84 R

Pennsylvania Republicans enjoy disproportionately large margins in both chambers thanks to redistricting, despite the state's overall purple-to-blue lean. Trump's presence on the ballot could hurt in some suburban areas if voters punish down-ballot Republicans. But even if the GOP loses seats there, Trump is strong in other parts of the state, and it's not 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 continues to have one of the most lopsided legislatures in the nation. The Democrats have nothing to worry about.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 78-46 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 98-49 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.

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 little reason to believe that antipathy will trickle down to legislative candidates. 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.

VIRGINIA

Senate: 21-19 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, the Senate currently has 25 Republicans and 24 Democrats -- including one Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans. The Democrats are chasing a Republican open seat and two GOP incumbents. Meanwhile, the Democrats have one open seat in play and one endangered incumbent. For now, we're rating this lean Republican, though this could change depending on the Trump effect. In the House, the Democrats hold a narrow advantage -- their smallest since 2002 -- and perhaps seven seats are in play. For now, we'll call this lean Democratic.

WEST VIRGINIA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 18-16 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 64-36 R

The dual GOP takeover of 2014 should hold in 2016. We're calling the Senate lean Republican for now due to the chamber's narrow margin, but that could join the House as likely Republican before the campaign season is over.

WISCONSIN

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 19-14 R

Assembly: Projected Lean R; Current 63-36 R

While we don't see either chamber as highly vulnerable, we're rating them both competitive for now. Wisconsin was one of Trump's weaker primary states, and the Democrats are sure to make a big push here because a victory in Wisconsin is crucial to Clinton's electoral college chances.

WYOMING

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-4 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 52-8 R

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

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Democrats lost control of the Colorado state Senate in 2012. It was 2014.