Republicans Add to Their Dominance of State Legislatures

The GOP successfully defended its majorities in most chambers and also picked up chambers in Kentucky and Iowa, giving the party full control of those states.
by | November 9, 2016
Republicans on Tuesday won control of the Kentucky House, which had been the last chamber in the South under Democratic control. (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Democrats went into this election controlling the governorship, Senate and House in just seven states -- that was their lowest number since the Civil War, when there were 15 fewer states. Now, they control just five states.

Democratic hopes of taking back power in a number of states formerly considered blue were dashed Tuesday night.

"In short, Republicans bested expectations," noted Dan Diorio, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Having already reached the peak of control in party history, Republicans will maintain a similar level of control in a year when many expected Democrats to net seats and chambers."

Republicans not only picked up the Kentucky House and the Iowa Senate but unseated the top Democratic leaders in both those chambers, Kentucky Speaker Greg Stumbo and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.

Republicans also appeared to have picked up the two seats they needed to take control of the Minnesota Senate, although two races appear to be heading to recounts.

The Kentucky House was the last chamber controlled by Democrats in the South.

"This is just Kentucky catching up with the South and the Midwest," said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. "The puzzle is not how the Republicans took over. The puzzle is how Democrats were able to hold out here so much longer than they did in the surrounding states."

Their gains in Iowa and Kentucky mean the GOP has won the trifecta in those states, controlling the governorship and both legislative chambers. Results are still pending in some chambers, but next year Republicans will control all the political branches of state government in fully half the states.

That number now includes Missouri and New Hampshire, where the GOP defended its legislative majorities and won the governorships.

"I've got to tell you, it's a beautiful day to be a Republican in the great state of New Hampshire," state party chair Jennifer Horn told an election night crowd.

Democrats, by contrast, now have total control of just California, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Republicans tied up the Delaware Senate, but newly-elected Democratic Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long will break that tie.

Republicans also pulled off a tie in the state Senate in Connecticut, formerly a Democratic trifecta state. The victory by GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Scott in the Vermont governor's race puts a Republican check on Democratic power there as well.

On paper, Democrats now control Washington state, but state Sen. Tim Sheldon will continue to caucus with the GOP, continuing the Republican Party's narrow control of the state Senate.

Democrats had hoped to win back control of the Minnesota House, where power had swung between the parties every two years of President Obama's tenure. But the GOP appears to have picked up a couple of seats, pairing with their victories in the state Senate.

Republicans successfully defended their narrow majorities in other chambers they won in 2014, including the Colorado, New Hampshire and West Virginia senates.

What's more, Republicans maintained legislative supermajorities in Indiana and North Carolina, where Democrats hoped they could win enough seats at least to uphold vetoes if their candidates won for governor. (That failed to happen in Indiana but did happen in North Carolina, pending a recount.)

There were other states where Republicans padded the score. In 2014, the GOP rang up its biggest majority in the Wisconsin House since the 1950s. They appear to have gained a seat in both chambers on Tuesday, although some results are still pending.

In Nevada, Democrats succeeded in erasing GOP majorities in both chambers, which had looked tenuous from the time Republicans won them in 2014. Democrats also took back the state House in New Mexico.

On Wednesday, a group of 17 Democrats formalized a coalition with three Republicans and two independents that will control the Alaska House. Democrat Bryce Edgmon will serve as Speaker.

Democrats also picked up 13 seats in the Kansas House. That's far from a majority, but some conservative Republicans were successfully targeted by moderates in the August primaries, while others were defeated on Tuesday.

"A red part of the country was moving back toward the center," said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

One oddity: Democrats picked up the sole seat held by a Republican in the Hawaii Senate. They will enjoy not just control but unanimity in that chamber.

But that won't help much nationwide, with the GOP continuing its dominance of state politics.